Written by Ryan McLaughlin, Senior Economist & Research Analyst, ICTC
The Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) was recently invited to participate in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Simon Fraser University (SFU) Big Data Initiative. As members of the ICTC research & policy team currently completing research on 5G and its use-cases across industry lines, my colleague Rosina Hamoni and I joined the conversation. While we were roundtable participants, we also treated the discussion as a chance to glean insight from the ten other experts around the table. The group included a number of heavy-hitters such as the CTO from the city of Vancouver, Directors and Chief Security Officers at Telus and Huawei, professors of computer science at SFU, and a number of others. Since the Chatham House Rule applied, experts had the opportunity to speak candidly regarding the opportunities and challenges surrounding 5G implementation and its applications.
Telecommunications technology is intricate and often highly-technical, making clarifying discussions like these extremely useful. Rosina and I walked away from this roundtable feeling more well-versed in the technology, its key applications and the most important considerations, as well as its potential challenges. Equipped with this new knowledge, the below showcases a few top insights for anyone who’s ever wondered “what is 5G and why is it important?”
So, what exactly is 5G?
5G mobile technology represents the next generation of mobile internet. With estimated data transmission speeds 20-times faster than 4G-LTE, 5G would mean that an HD movie can be downloaded in a matter of seconds. With 5G, mobile data latencies (or “lag”) will also fall from 500 milliseconds to 10, while connection reliability and the number of connectable devices per square kilometre will increase. Beyond this, 5G would allow businesses and governments to effectively “switch-on” a wide variety of sensors and devices across cities within the next few years. With 5G, internet quality upgrades ensure that technologies which may be feasible but fragile today can be completely reliable in the future. This includes much-touted developments such as autonomous vehicles, remote industrial facilities, cost-effective and ubiquitous sensors, and multi-use drones.
The core technologies of 5G include Small Cells, which are densely distributed transmitters sending high frequency waves over short distances. Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) and Beamforming are the software and hardware (antennas) which perform subtle signal processing tasks, enabling multiple data signals to be simultaneously transmitted over the same radio channel. This is important to abate concerns over scarce spectra, and interference with physical objects. Finally, Network Slicing enables the layering of multiple virtual networks atop common shared physical infrastructure, and virtual network partitions allow users to select the technical specifics needed for their application (bandwidth, latency, security, connectivity, capacity, and coverage), which improves efficiency.
In short, 5G technology is really a bundle of technologies encompassing hardware, software, and protocols which will be layered atop existing 4G-LTE networks. Devices will connect to 5G when available, and this availability will improve continuously over the coming years both in Canada and around the world as telecom infrastructure is built and deployed.
The many stages of 5G: application timelines
While a description of 5G is useful, one central line of questioning that often gets raised is not just what 5G will do but also when it will do it. At the roundtable discussion, one expert helpfully segmented the technological applications anticipated to be delivered via 5G into three stages.
The first stage was termed Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB). This stage includes applications like HD mobile video streaming (a critical revenue-driver for telecoms), and Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR). In fact, many argue that AR/VR will be technologically dependent on 5G, because the technology is inherently mobile, high bandwidth, and requires low latency to minimize nauseating lag. These applications will be the first to emerge and are expected within the next 1-2 years.
Stage two was identified as Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC). This can be thought of as the Internet of Things (IoT) stage. Applications in this area involves the proliferation of sensors across urban, and later, rural environments.
Finally, stage three applications were categorized as Ultra-reliable and Low-latency Communications (uRLLC). As the name suggests, these applications are more sophisticated and require connections that are extremely unlikely to fail – all with latencies under 10-milliseconds. Examples of developments under this group include autonomous vehicles (AVs) and remote surgeries. While remote robotic surgeries are not in and of themselves dependent on mobile technology, many experts at the roundtable emphasized that 5G would increase reliability, reduce latency, and build in redundancy in the process.
Snapshot: 5G and autonomous vehicles
During the discussion of 5G use cases and applications, the notion of self-driving cars (or autonomous vehicles) was brought to the surface. Equipped with sophisticated software onboard, the first AVs will be truly “autonomous” in that they will be entirely sovereign decision-makers.
While not all future vehicles will be AVs, they must still be independently capable of navigating the world. Initially, automated vehicles – essentially powerful custom computers on wheels – will emerge, and for these vehicles, 5G will not be mission-critical. However, as technology develops and vehicles become truly autonomous rather than simply automated, they will become highly interlinked with other vehicles and the infrastructure – this is something that will make them highly reliant on 5G. At first, autonomous vehicles will observe the colour of traffic lights, as well as surrounding vehicles to decide when to accelerate, but eventually, traffic lights may be altogether unnecessary if all vehicles are autonomous and communicating instantaneously with one another. While the first generation of these vehicles may find 5G more of a “nice-to-have” than a necessity, later generation AVs are likely to be highly dependent on it.
During the roundtable, representatives from Metro Vancouver spoke at length on the infrastructure implications for these later generation AVs, discussing the needs for cities to collaborate on consistent standards. This way, as one participant put it, a vehicle will not arrive at Boundary Road, separating Vancouver and Burnaby, and simply be forced to stop.
Why does 5G enable the Internet of Things (IoT)?
One aspect of 5G that is often misunderstood is how it will facilitate IoT – stage two 5G applications in the phraseology above – because currently, IoT sensors are often not particularly high bandwidth. Take for example, a sensor embedded in a parking stall. This sensor may send one bit of data every few minutes (stall occupied, or stall vacant). Although latencies of 500 milliseconds common with 4G-LTE are perfectly acceptable for IoT applications like this, 4G-LTE lacks when it comes to battery life.
5G will enable the proliferation of mass IoT not necessarily because of improvements in bandwidth or latency, but because the technology uses considerably less battery than 4G-LTE. While this may be perceived as a seemingly small difference, it could fundamentally change the actual economics of IoT for many applications. With 5G, battery life for the average sensor is estimated to increase by at least 300%, from 1-2 years to 7-8 years. With this change, maintenance costs for these devices will fall dramatically and this is something that should further function to increase their viability.
As IoT sensors become widespread, commodification and economies of scale will result in rapidly declining prices. One industry representative at the roundtable event went even further to suggest that the price per sensor could fall from $100 to $1. While optimistic, ultimately, declining cost for the equipment needed to support widespread connectivity is one central factor enabling a future where IoT is the norm.
The million-dollar question: will 5G work in rural areas?
While certainly possible, rural 5G implementation is set to occur well-after urbanites and suburbanites gain access. Since the technology of 5G relies on the proliferation of many small cells which transmit signal over relatively short distances, this infrastructure is well-suited for mounting atop streetlights and buildings, but is less feasible in areas of low population-density. That said, alternative telecommunications technologies may be better suited for agrarian IoT, at least in the meantime.
Managed by the LoRa Alliance, Long Range Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) is a relatively simple networking protocol which is designed for IoT, and is often used outside of cities. The typical use-case for LoRaWAN is a battery-operated device that transmits small amounts of data every 15 to 60 minutes and needs to last for at least 10 years without maintenance. LoRaWAN signals can reach 10km, which far surpasses Bluetooth, Wifi, or millimeter wave 5G.
Although LoRaWAN is not appropriate for high bandwidth applications like video streaming or applications requiring ultra low latency, it is very efficient and cost effective for many rural IoT applications. With a sensor placed on a farm animal, relatively little data could inform a rancher in the event that is about to give birth. LoRaWAN could also help facilitate smart water or gas metering in remote communities. Since LoRaWAN is a technology that is already available today and deployed by firms like Waterloo’s eleven-x, it is possible that many low-bandwidth, simple IoT applications – even those in cities – may rely on LoRaWAN before 5G is implemented.
Security, regulation, and beyond: key considerations tied to 5G
Finally, a number of considerations, important questions, and challenges related to 5G were brought to the surface during this roundtable discussion. The first topic of discussion was security. Because Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) facilitated by 5G necessitates the collection of large batches of data, this will likely mean that the volume of personal data collected on individuals will increase. While this data is valuable for businesses or even municipalities that seek to develop and use AI algorithms to understand the world or predict outcomes, the question of what data is collected and who safeguards it arises. In a future of true IoT ubiquity, effective collection of data is a must and cybersecurity professionals will need to continue developing new technologies and skills to respond to and plan for these realities.
Second, the regulatory implications of 5G were discussed. This included questions about ownership of these new streams of data. Questions that arose included ones like the following: Can data be simply copied and resold indefinitely? With enough data on individuals, is anonymization even possible? Do individuals have a right to be forgotten?
Other regulatory and legal discussions centred on hypothetical situations emerging from 5G proliferation. For example, if medical treatment is commodified and globalized through the internet, with services such as remote surgeries and diagnoses available, what will be covered under government-sponsored medical plans? In these cases, will individuals be allowed to install trackers on vehicles or on their bodies which decrease insurance premiums by banishing uncertainty about who is likely to get into an accident or get sick? Alternatively, can an individual sell read-access of their genome to an insurance company? These and a number of other questions were grappled with by experts for the purpose of understanding how 5G’s vast new data streams will require relevant stakeholders to address many difficult legal and regulatory circumstances.
Finally, a number of social and ethical questions will need to be addressed as a result of mass 5G deployment. Currently, the uncertainty regarding who will contract a disease allows us to easily spread the cost of healthcare across many people – everyone needs coverage since it is unknown who will get sick, and therefore costs are spread out evenly. But if better data means that uncertainty is reduced, will this current reality be subject to change? The availability of vast new datasets facilitated by 5G, such as demographic information, internet search history, and smartwatch health indicators, all intersected with a person’s genetic information can theoretically be fed into a predictive algorithm that could generate outcomes with a high likelihood of accuracy. In such cases, who should obtain this information, and more importantly, should individual data be captured and monitored to this degree? Although 5G is only one piece of this ever-evolving data puzzle, these are serious concerns that must be addressed in the interest of data privacy, security, and transparency tied to the technology.
In the end, 5G, in combination with other telecom technologies like LoRa, should soon enable the three stages of technological progress discussed above: Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB), Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC), and then finally Ultra-reliable and Low-latency Communications (uRLLC). These new technologies will be accompanied by significant security, regulatory and even moral considerations. Do the benefits of widespread access to high-quality internet services outweigh these costs? Canada is poised to tackle these questions, and consider the numerous benefits as well as key challenges that 5G technology will bring to the forefront.
Ryan McLaughlin is a Senior Economist & Research Analyst at the Information and Communications Technology Council of Canada (ICTC), a national centre of expertise on the digital economy. At ICTC, Ryan works on analysing labour market information, statistical and econometric analysis, as well as economic forecasting. Ryan has contributed to forthcoming ICTC reports on topics such as blockchain and artificial intelligence. He previously contributed to ICTC’s reports on 5G mobile technology, as well as papers focused on forecasting the digital economy within the provinces and across Canada. In collaboration with colleagues Rosina Hamoni and Alexandra Cutean, Ryan is currently working on a paper on 5G mobile technology which will analyse use-cases across industries and assess investment-attraction potential. Watch for this forthcoming paper, to be available in early 2020.