AS executives from the world’s biggest phone companies gather in Barcelona this week, much of their focus will be on the US$1.7 trillion they’re spending as they upgrade to fourth-generation wireless technology.
Yet delegates at the Mobile World Congress will also be discussing what happens after that period of investment ends in 2020, as attention shifts to mobile’s fifth generation: a development being targeted less at humans and more at machines.
From the network of intelligent sensors that will help ‘smart cities’ run traffic systems and waste collection to the robot medics able to carry out remote surgery, scientists and companies such as Orange SA, Ericsson AB and Huawei Technologies Co are already ploughing resources into investigating how 5G will be used.
While the technology’s standards haven’t been determined – its emergence isn’t expected until at least 2020 – the industry is imagining much faster speeds, lower power usage, better reliability and a fundamental change in the way we use the Web.
“Connected objects will transform the nature of mobile traffic,” said Nicolas Demassieux, senior vice president of Orange Labs Research.
“We will have to build technology capable of sustaining both heavy broadband users and the ‘Internet of things.’”
The most revolutionary feature of 5G may be its near instant connection speeds. These signals give a response time of a millisecond or less, well beyond the fastest reaction needed in a video
The technology could also be reliable to a degree unthinkable to today’s mobile-phone users, with researchers examining whether 99.999 per cent availability of service is feasible.
Speed and reliability will be crucial for things like driverless cars or other machines that must respond instantly to changing information. It will also be essential if dreams about remote robotic systems are to be realised.
“We want to invoke a paradigm shift from an information delivery network to a skillset delivery network,” said Mischa Dohler, head of the wireless communications department at Kings College in London.
“You deliver in a pseudo-electronic way your skills: me teaching a child in Ghana to play piano; doctors doing surgery in Sierra Leone.”
He’s referring to the ‘tactile Internet’ – a connection so responsive that an expert could transmit human touch and movements to machines. For example, robot proxies could be used in a dangerous outbreak of Ebola.
Perhaps more pressing is designing 5G to handle the growth of the Internet of things, including those smart sensors monitoring things such as electricity use and refrigerator contents.
By the time 5G is deployed there will be 50 billion devices linked to the Web, according to Cisco Systems Inc. That’s seven for every person.
“It will not only be smartphones, tablets and PCs, it will be anything that can benefit from being connected,” said Sara Mazur, network maker Ericsson’s research chief.
Because of the ubiquity of these devices, carriers need a much cheaper way to provide coverage, hence their hope that 5G could cut network energy use by 90 per cent.
Humans will benefit too, not least from 5G’s top speeds of about 10 gigabits per second – 100 times faster than 4G, according to the GSMA, the mobile industry
That’s faster than most fiber-optic connections and means a movie could be be downloaded in less than a second. When carriers upgraded to 4G from 3G, top speeds merely doubled.
Phone companies also anticipate much higher volumes as mobile access to the Internet surges. Allan Kock, head of radio networks for Swedish carrier TeliaSonera AB, expects as much as 1,000 times more traffic on networks by 2025. — Bloomberg