/ 25 October 2019

​A first step towards the future

Urban hubs are likely to be the first to access 5G technology
Urban hubs are likely to be the first to access 5G technology, which requires large numbers of small cells. (Photo: Madelene Cronje)



Almost all of us have heard the term 5G before, but explanations of it are often filled with arcane language that seem to be created to confound the reader. At the same time, there’s undeniable urgency to any mention of 5G, and for good reason. This technology has been on the horizon for years and promises to bring sweeping change along with its advent. But what exactly is 5G, and why does it matter so much more than its cellular predecessors?

Cellular networks experienced a fundamental shift in the last decade. The arrival of smartphones meant providing stable and speedy internet connections was a priority for telecommunications networks. In developing countries such as South Africa, where cellphones have been a catalyst in bringing large swathes of the population online and into the digital economy, this holds especially true.

5G presents the next step in this technology, and it’s a dauntingly tall one. On a fundamental level, what differs in the technologies isn’t vast. Whereas 4G and earlier generations of cellular networks solely used low-frequency networks, iconically cast from tall cell towers, 5G takes full advantage of the spectrum, using low-frequency waves to cover large areas with connectivity, while also offering breakneck internet speeds through a high-frequency millimetre wave (mmWave) network.

These latter connections require a different manner of broadcasting, utilising “small cells” in great numbers to counteract their comparatively tiny range. Small cells have already been installed in many major cities to boost 4G connections, but the newer network will require many more in order to provide a fully-fledged 5G experience. Another by-product of this is that urban hubs are likely to be the first to access this technology, given the dividends of offering the network to a more densely packed area. 5G will fundamentally change what cities look like, but not necessarily in ways that we’ll like.

The Internet of Things is another term often bandied about at conferences and in meetings, referring to the ever-growing amount of internet-enabled and connected devices in our homes and in public. Inside of our private lives, these devices take the shape of Nest security cameras and smart-toasters among other things, all of which are notoriously hackable.

Yet these devices are only a foot in the door for what 5G will allow. Using its high-frequency millimetre wave connections, almost anything with an electrical capacity can become a device that can pull huge amounts of data as well as do complex cloud computations. Billboards will become more akin to Facebook ads, showing you products or messages it’s already confident you want, and everything from an automated toilet to a driverless taxi will know your name. These are some of the uncannier aspects of a smart city, but don’t allow this to distress you. Although city skylines are changing, we’re a long way from the dystopia depicted in the likes of Bladerunner. Instead, 5G might have a considerable impact on inequality in our economy. In a truly smart city, these technologies will allow people to create new services and products and be able to share them in a far more efficient market.

Young entrepreneurs are already selling everything from vintage clothes to vegan ice cream on Instagram or Depop, and are building social media empires. Smart cities, using the Internet of Things, all powered by this new network, will make these opportunities more apparent to the next generation. 

Smart or far apart?

The concept of the smart city is usually presented in somewhat utopian terms: as places where citizens are engaged, connected, and even protected by a futuristic environment able to anticipate and adapt to their needs.

Locally, we’ve been treating technological advances with some trepidation. Talk of the fourth industrial revolution in South Africa has been greeted with jokes, underpinned by real fear: if the we can’t get the basics of education right, why are we handing out iPads to schoolchildren? If we’re still relying on “Please Call Me’s”, how are we meant to afford the data that’s set to power our AI-enabled future? And that’s all aside from concerns about job losses, killer robots, and everything in between.

Those fears aren’t unfounded. “Economic realities cannot be ignored: cities in poorer countries face disadvantages,” states Professor Arturo Bris, director of the IMD World Competitiveness Center, in the preface to the IMD Smart City Index 2019, “which will require specific actions to correct along the path towards smartness.” The survey places Cape Town at 93 out of 102 top smart cities in the world — an impressive achievement — but it doesn’t take an expert to see that the city remains grossly unequal in terms of opportunities.

Nevertheless, it’s useful to take note of the lifestyle factors that the survey has examined: that basic amenities were most frequently ranked as a priority for the majority of survey respondents, with employment and security second and third respectively, as selected from a list that also included energy efficiency, recycling, and green spaces. So, what makes for “smartness”, and what are the specific actions to which Bris refers? Most importantly, how do we ensure that we mitigate the risks of a tech-powered future, but harness smart cities’ potential to close some of the society’s digital divide?

Decentralising the city

A smart city is an urban settlement that uses technology to develop and implement sustainable development practices that address its own challenges: as suggested about, data about traffic might be used to develop measures that ease congestion. But in our enthusiasm about the potential of smart cities, it’s useful to keep in mind that communication technology also provides opportunities to decentralise work, and perhaps public and private life at large.

Whatever the benefits of smart cities, their capacity will remain limited: in South Africa and around the world, urban centres are straining under the demands for affordable housing, efficient public transport to and from central business districts, and public facilities to serve the needs of growing populations. In South Africa in particular, apartheid spatial planning has left a legacy of many people being far removed from where the work is, so Cape Town’s roads are among the most congested in the world.

Fewer commuters mean less congestion. Online work has the potential to be a powerful enabler for those whose earning potential has been limited by childcare responsibilities, and it might prove helpful in closing the gender gap and class divide. Perhaps best of all, remote work might minimise the danger faced by those whose early starts and late returns put them in crime-ridden areas before and after dark, and on some of the world’s most dangerous roads at rush hour. Given that online work would solve so many of South African cities’ problems, what’s standing in the way of making it more prevalent, fast?

Left to our own devices

In the South African context, mobile devices seem set to remain the primary mode of internet access, and a relatively low-cost mode of communication for the majority of the population. But both physical and intangible assets and resources such as software and data remain expensive for the average South African, so if the local economy is to maximise the potential of remote work, it will require some level of output for the businesses willing to be a part of the solution. The payoff might be significant: in addition to the benefits for society, allowing employees the option of working off-site enables companies to cut down on many of the costs incurred by maintaining large premises, and some HR issues become a thing of the past when managing employees in person is no longer a concern.

Despite what the IMD Smart City Index seems to suggest, there’s evidence of hope. Nearly 72% of Cape Town respondents reported that online access to job listings had made it easier to find work, and they are ready to put their trust in the potential of tech to improve their lot in life — more than 83% are comfortable with face recognition technologies to lower crime, and 76% are willing to concede personal data in order to improve traffic congestion. With this level of pre-existing buy-in, it seems that public and private enterprises alike are well-placed to make the investments that allow participation in building smart cities that serve everybody.