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CWA # 162, 6 September 2019

Science, Technology and International Relations
5G: A Primer

  Lakshman Chakravarthy N

5G enables the purported Internet of Things, makes autonomous driving systems more reliable, actualizes performing surgeries remotely, revolutionizes industrial robotics and makes virtual reality a step closer to reality, among many other potential uses.

5G is the next-generation wireless communication technology, succeeding the current 4G technology. It can potentially transform our usage of the internet and offers applications that were not possible with previous-generation technologies. 5G enables the purported Internet of Things, makes autonomous driving systems more reliable, actualizes performing surgeries remotely, revolutionizes industrial robotics and makes virtual reality a step closer to reality, among many other potential uses. The promising applications that 5G can bring about can be crucial advances for tomorrow’s societies and thus should be of concern from a strategic perspective. 
 
The Why, What and How of 5G
With the exponential growth in data usage, the existing band of waves used in 4G services is getting more congested day after day. When a lot of users access a network simultaneously, this congestion leads to breakdowns in service. 5G technology is based on communication through millimetre waves, which are shorter than the waves used for current 4G and Wi-Fi networks. Millimetre waves were not previously used for any communication and are therefore far less congested compared to the longer-range waves used in 4G networks. The lack of congestion can make the data transfer run up to 10 times faster than the current internet speeds. The network’s core is redesigned to have central hubs communicating with local hubs. The popular content, e.g. video-on-demand services can be moved closer to the user on the local hubs. This reduces the time to access the content. The central and local hubs are better integrated with the internet and cloud-based services, as compared to the previous-generation networks. Such changes in the design of the network allow for very little latency in responding and thus promote very fast responses. This feature opens up a plethora of applications that need almost real-time correspondence, like vehicle collision avoidance systems. Also, coding improvements applied to the 5G network massively boosts the reliability of the communication, making the delay or loss of a message extremely rare.

The communication devices connect to antennas which relay the information back and forth between the hubs and the devices and thus are a crucial component of networks. The new 5G antennas can connect to 100 times more devices than a 4G antenna at the same time while occupying the same physical space as a 4G antenna. This allows for multiple devices to be connected at once to the network and thus to each other. This opens up a massive machine-to-machine communication, enabling the Internet of Things, letting multiple devices connect to perform operations without human involvement. Given their nature, millimeter waves can travel in a single direction like a beam, with very little dispersal in other directions. This is like a flashlight that focuses light in one direction, as compared to a light bulb that disperses light in all directions. By combining this property with technology on the antenna that can steer the beam, a specific signal can be directed to its corresponding device rather than in all directions. This reduces interference from unwanted signals and thus increases efficiency. Also, this establishes more stable connectivity for devices on the move like mobile users or autonomous driving systems.
 
What difference is 5G going to make? 
High-speed data transfer promotes high-quality streaming and enhanced mobile broadband for home internet access. It also transforms broadcast applications that currently rely upon relatively expensive satellite transmission. Virtual reality systems based on heavy data-usage can now operate on wireless systems with similar efficacy offered by fiber-optic communication. This transforms mobile virtual reality which can be more seamless than previous versions and also similar applications in augmented reality, which combines virtual reality features with real-world features (like the popular game of Pokemon Go).

The massive machine-to-machine communication revolutionizes modern industrial processes, agriculture, manufacturing, and business communication. Interconnected devices like drone swarms can be effectively employed in search and rescue operations, fire assessments and traffic monitoring apart from other applications. The high-reliable, low-latency communication offers real-time control necessary to deal with emergencies in industrial robotics, autonomous driving systems and remote healthcare procedures like surgeries as well as treatment.

5G technology allows for customized services, where the quality of service can be altered according to the need of the user. Previous-generation technologies employed a one-size-fits-all method, which is no longer a viable solution for technical and market reasons. Imagine a local hub of a 5G network parallelly serving a YouTuber and a local system managing autonomous vehicles. The YouTuber may wish to exploit the fast download and upload speeds and is less concerned about the response latency. Whereas the autonomous driving system requires real-time monitoring offered by low latency communication and is less interested in data transfer speeds. 5G systems incorporate technology to offer a 'slice' of the network for the YouTuber and another independent one for the autonomous driving system. This customization opens up multiple potential applications to make use of the network efficiently. From the market perspective, different slices can be offered to operations by different applications, services or industries, boosting revenue generation.
 
What are the challenges?
The benefits offered by tapping into using millimeter waves for communication were not already realized because of the hardware requirements to access these waves are completely different from the ones used for previous-generation technologies. The industry has shown readiness in incorporating the expensive hardware into the devices. However, complications do not end there. Added to this issue is the problem of the range of operation using millimeter waves. These waves cover only short ranges around an antenna and thus three to four times more antennas than the current 4G ones need to be deployed. The speed of the network ultimately is a function of the spectrum band used for communication and the ubiquity of the antennae that the telecom operator establishes. This raises costs exponentially for the telecom operators, who are already burdened by the billions that they pay to regulators to buy slivers of the spectrum.

Since the millimeter waves can be absorbed by any intervening object, the device has to be in the line-of-sight of an antenna. This requires small antennae to be deployed, nearly in every single room of a building, on every lamp post of a road to ensure complete coverage. A considerable fiber-optic connection has to be established linking all the small antennae. Given the huge costs, rolling out the technology for public usage becomes a lengthy process. Added to all the woes are the municipality regulations for the installation of all the devices and accounting for the health hazards that can potentially result from the installation. If these impediments are handled in a planned manner, the benefits of 5G can impact the future of individuals, corporations, and nation-states.  

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