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5G technology is the future

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In July 2019, President Ramaphosa first spoke about the government’s plan to upgrade South Africa from 4G to 5G (fifth-generation wireless communication technology) with the help of Chinese telecoms giant, Huawei. It wasn’t initially an urgent priority, but the coronavirus crisis created a rapid shift in priorities. 

Vodacom’s recent launch of 5G, as the second local provider, is partly due to emergency coronavirus regulations. In April the government permitted access to some of the radio frequency spectrum required for 5G on an “emergency basis” only to help fight Covid-19. This allocation is to help operators cope with demand and is only accessible by operators until the end of the state of emergency in November.

Speaking via hologram at the inaugural 4th Industrial Revolution SA Digital Economy Summit, Ramaphosa backed Chinese technology giant Huawei and outlined his government’s strategy to unlock economic opportunities in the digital era. He said the US action against Huawei was an example of protectionism that would affect South Africa’s telecommunications sector. “This standoff between China and the US where the technology company Huawei is being used as victim because of its successes is an example of protectionism that will affect our own telecommunications sector, particularly the efforts to roll out the 5G network, causing a setback on other networks as well.” 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says the government strategy to unlock economic opportunities includes 5G. Photo: People’s Assembly

What is 5G, and why it’s safe

Each generation before 5G was itself a major leap: the first generation was voice; the second could handle SMS messaging; 3G is still with us and can reach speeds of up to 2Mbps; the latest version, 4G or fibre, can in theory reach hundreds of megabits per second, though most users experience it between 10Mbps and 100Mbps. Now 5G is the newest iteration of mobile data standards, and at 1 gigabit per second it is roughly 10 times faster than 4G and 100 times faster than 3G.

Wireless communications utilise radio frequencies; 5G uses higher radio frequencies than 4G, thereby providing faster access to information and movies. To put it into perspective: one 4G cell tower can support approximately 2 000 devices with some traffic delays; a 5G tower will exponentially support more than one million connected devices per square kilometre, with negligible delays and with a massive jump in bandwidth making it able to handle more cumbersome traffic loads.

This comes just after the release for most of us of fibre, or 4G. However, all the trenching in roads to lay down fibre optic cable wasn’t a waste. Although fibre products are currently generally slower than 5G, they will eventually catch up: the only limitation is in the equipment on either end of the fibre cable.

Over time our current fibre speeds will become multi-gigabit services as the equipment is upgraded. In fact, 5G will likely speed up this process due to increased competition. It’s likely that many businesses will stick to fibre due to is guaranteed service, and because fibre speeds aren’t affected by the weather or distance from the base station.

There have been widespread concerns regarding the health implications of 5G frequencies, to which Vodacom parent company Vodafone has responded on its website: “Frequencies are covered by existing international and national exposure guidelines and regulations for radio-frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF). These international guidelines are based on extensive reviews of published scientific research spanning many decades.  And the guidelines apply in the same way to 5G as they do to existing 2G, 3G and 4G technologies and other radio frequencies such as radio and TV transmissions.

“In March 2020, following an extensive review of the best science currently available, the independent [standards] body ICNIRP [International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection] updated the international safety guidelines that provide protection from exposure to EMF from mobile devices and networks.  

“Although ICNIRP made several minor adjustments to its 1998 guidelines, the review confirmed that there are no adverse effects on human health from radio frequencies used by mobile technologies, including 5G, if exposure is below these guidelines.

“The World Health Organisation says: ‘A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.’

“There is no credible scientific evidence linking 5G or mobile technologies to the spread of Coronavirus. The ICNIRP considers all potential impacts on human health relating to mobile phone frequencies including 5G. Following an extensive review of the best science currently available, in March 2020 the ICNIRP confirmed that there are no adverse effects on human health from 5G frequencies if exposure is within their guidelines.”

Vodafone continues: “We comply with national regulations in all markets, and will continue to do so across the range of new 5G devices and new radio masts. 5G and other frequencies have been the subject of research for a number of years. The consistent conclusion of public health agencies and expert groups is that compliance with the international guidelines is protective for all persons (including children) against all established health risks.”

In May 2020 Vodacom became the South African first operator to launch 5G to mobile users. Photo: Neowin

The rollout of 5G in SA

The rollout of 5G in SA will be the subject of a succeeding Mail & Guardian feature, but to introduce this topic, South Africans now have a choice of two 5G networks: Vodacom and Rain.  

The history of the rollout is that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which ratifies communications standards, put together a roadmap for it as early as 2015. Some countries including the UK and China started getting 5G networks last year, though South Africa is still ahead of the global general adoption curve. 

Notwithstanding Vodacom’s “emergency” permission, the big mobile operators have been unable to launch 5G services until more spectrum is licensed to them by the communications regulator, the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa). The government is due to auction off blocks of the spectrum later this year, as there is common agreement on plans to upgrade South Africa to 5G in 2020, based on the understanding that 5G technology could benefit the South African economy by providing faster connectivity and speed over a wireless network. This would further drive down data costs and finally permit the realisation of the concept of “smart cities”. The impact will affect many industries. 

A tower cell being updated to 5G in the US. Photo: KTLA

There are currently two service providers, both offering 5G connectivity for no more than the cost of fibre:

  • Rain, a mobile operator that only provides data services, has launched a fixed-wireless 5G network, offering a fast broadband connection to homes and businesses without requiring fibre. The service is available initially in parts of Johannesburg and Tshwane. It has leveraged its 4G data networking infrastructure to build the 5G network in its regulated 3 600MHz spectrum band. The company did not need government intervention to achieve this, as they repurposed the parts of the spectrum formerly used by iBurst after they bought parent company WBS. 
  • Vodacom became the first operator in SA to offer 5G to mobile users. When its emergency allocation ends, Vodacom may still be able to access 5G-friendly spectrum through its recently announced deal with Liquid Telecom to use their 5G network. Liquid owns the parts of the spectrum that formerly belonged to Neotel. According to Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy: “Vodacom will roam entirely on Liquid Telecom’s 5G network once we no longer have access to temporary spectrum and until we get our own 5G spectrum. The loss of temporary spectrum will neither impact customer experience nor our 5G rollout.”

Liquid Telecom announced earlier this year that it was building a wholesale 5G network that would be available from early 2020 in major SA cities, using its share of the 3.5GHz spectrum required for 5G. It said it would allow other operators to roam on its network, but did not say which technology supplier would be used to roll out its 5G network.

How 5G can assist with healthcare and contact tracing during Covid-19

The challenge of the Covid-19 outbreak is managing the threat to human life and its impact on national healthcare systems. The 5G technology is proving invaluable in alleviating the burden of testing, contact tracing and social isolation. In China, the first country to experience the full might of the pandemic, data scientists early came aboard to provide the fast, seamless connectivity needed to get information from its source to where it could help the most.

The value of 5G technology to healthcare has been amply demonstrated during the current Covid-19 crisis by Chinese telecoms operator Huawei, which collaborated to rapidly set up a specific 5G network dedicated to Covid-19 treatment hospitals, particularly in Wuhan’s Huoshenshan Hospital, built to accommodate the massive rise in infections there. The 5G network enabled the hospital to provide digital services crucial to dealing with the outbreak such as data collection, remote diagnosis and remote monitoring. Other hospitals also received guaranteed high-speed 5G internet access.

“We aren’t at the frontlines; we aren’t taking the risks that many people are. But ICT still has a role to play,” said Huawei CMO Kevin Zhang on the Huawei blog. “At a basic level, digital connectivity is helping to make the management and containment of the virus more efficient.”

Another vital 5G contribution is the management of logistics related to feeding and caring for the millions of people quarantined at home during the coronavirus lockdowns. “Apps and network connectivity ensured that food supplies reach the homes of hundreds of millions of home-bound Chinese each day,” said Zhang. “Information about the condition, and receiving guidance on handling the virus are digitalised in a way that we’ve never seen before.”

The advances in 5G are enhancing these efficiencies, and also the safety of the brave health workers who are going out into the field to test people and relay data back to labs and information hubs where responses can be planned. It has enabled capabilities such as contactless temperature testing, continuous remote monitoring during patient transfer, thermal-imaging contagion monitoring and other functions that until recently were unimaginable.

New technologies are continually being developed on the 5G platform to revolutionise healthcare. A team of researchers from MIT has developed a novel method of tracking Covid-19 transmission among the population, using Bluetooth “chirps” that could automatically trace Covid-positive contacts and warn those who have potentially become infected, without violating their privacy.

The system is called Pact, or Private Automated Contact Tracing. It works by sending random strings of numbers via low-power Bluetooth from a user’s smartphone to other nearby devices using the system, creating a coded list of smartphones that a given user has been close to in the past 14 days.

If the user subsequently tests positive for Covid-19, he or she can upload that list of “chirps” to the database, so that other users can run a check to determine whether they might have exposed.

The team hopes that if Pact comes into widespread use it will enable a much more selective approach to quarantine and give communities the ability to return to normalcy more quickly. MIT said that the system uses advanced privacy protection methods to ensure the privacy of both Covid-19 sufferers and those checking to see whether they’ve been exposed. People will need to opt in, and researchers have specifically highlighted that Pact does not use any GPS, wireless location or phone ID information.

Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan with its Huawei 5G infrastructure. Photo: CGTN

The 4IR value chain: how a new technology directly creates jobs

The World Economic Forum, in a white paper, The Impact of 5G: Creating New Value across Industries and Society, says the transition to 5G networks can only be achieved when all stakeholders — consumers, the private sector and government — collaborate to effectively address certain questions.

Globally, 5G will create millions of jobs: three million alone in the US, according to Accenture. It could open doors for a developing economy like South Africa to transition into the future. For one thing, it is infrastructure intensive: rolling out 5G means a lot more cellphone towers, and that takes time and investment. This is due to the radio frequency that 5G uses, which is high-frequency waves that enable faster data speeds but don’t travel as far. It therefore needs more base stations to work.

Then there is the issue of personal devices: there is just one smartphone in South Africa at present that actually makes use of 5G, and it’s not cheap. More will follow in due course, as new devices need to be tested in conjunction with the manufacturer and certified by operators as being within acceptable technical performance. 

5G will enable automatic cars to avoid other cars, making them safer. (Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
5G will enable automatic cars to avoid other cars, making them safer. (Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A Deloitte Insights report on 5G, Build it and they will embrace it, states: “The advent of 5G could convince consumers to upgrade their smartphones. The first 5G-compatible smartphones hit the market in 2019, with more releases planned for 2020. As 5G coverage expands, demand for 5G smartphones will grow.” 

It states that what consumers want is in fact rather simple: “a good connection and a good price”. Users will probably also need to buy a new 5G-compatible router if they want home access.

The technology is fundamentally the enabler of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It allows other technologies to thrive, such as driverless cars and other smart appliances, and it heralds automation on a grand scale. Key to this is its ability to handle massive data speeds, fast enough to watch mobile 4K videos and deliver broadband to homes and businesses without the need to deploy fibre infrastructure. Also, it will also be fast enough to power remote virtual reality (VR) applications for enterprise and personal use.

In another World Economic Forum paper presented at its last annual meeting, it was projected: “The smartphone and 4G have already transformed the way we communicate, consume and live; with 5G, we are entering the next generation of mobile communication. Coupled with an array of other new technological solutions like Internet of Things (IoT — physical things connected to the internet), edge computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, 5G is powering the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the same way that steam, electricity and silicon powered the previous three. With faster and more reliable connectivity, industries can digitally transform their businesses and manufacture their products in much smarter ways.

“Response times will also be much faster with 5G. The 4G network responds to our commands in just under 50 milliseconds; with 5G it will take around one millisecond — 400 times faster than the blink of the eye. For a world that is increasingly dependent on the internet to function, a reduction in time delay is critical.

“It is crucial, for example, to developing safer, more intelligent vehicles. Road traffic crashes claim more than 1.35 million lives each year and cause up to 50 million injuries globally. With 5G we can reduce collisions and injuries on the road which is of great socioeconomic importance. By connecting the intelligence between different moving objects and moving with their speed, accidents can be prevented. These benefits will grow exponentially when vehicles are connected to share information with other cars and with everything around them.

“By the end of 2025, we expect 5G to have 2.6 billion subscriptions, covering up to 65% of the world’s population. Meanwhile, the number of cellular IoT connections is expected to reach 5 billion worldwide, up from 1.3 billion today. 

“According to McKinsey, if policy-makers and businesses get it right, the economic value to be generated by IoT globally could generate between US$3.9-trillion to US$11.1-trillion a year by 2025. Like many other huge shifts in economy and technology, this is a great opportunity to adopt new technologies and move your business forward.

“Embracing the technologies and ideas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which provide access to data and insights to optimise your business, will be crucial to stay alive in the long term. In fact, there is a considerable cost associated with passively waiting on the sidelines. A multinational manufacturer that fails to upgrade will see inefficiencies and downtime affect production. This can result in losses worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in addition to the risk of falling behind the competition.”

What does 5G mean for e-education?

School and university closures have become the new normal across the world, and they increasingly rely on high-speed connectivity to work. The next generation of students expects the next generation of classrooms. According to a 2018 Pearson study, two-thirds of millennials agree that technology will transform how college students learn in the future. Educational institutions need a wireless network that can meet students wherever they are and provide a seamless learning experience. This is where 5G comes in: it enables the downloading of a high-quality, feature-length documentary in seconds, hosting a guest speaker via hologram, or tutoring students virtually, in real time, without delays.

New technologies are changing the way students learn. Photo: HKU Space

Education is just scratching the surface of what’s possible in the classroom. Here is what teachers and educators can expect:

  • Mixed-reality content and video require high bandwidth and low latency to perform optimally. Currently, 4G struggles to maintain the traffic required for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences. But with 5G, experiences will be seamless: students may tour the human body or visit other planets in VR; with AR, they can explore concepts while zooming through the Earth’s layers as fast as they think about them.
  • Menial administrative tasks will be automated, and students can deliver feedback digitally.
  • With 5G, downloading a feature-length movie will take seconds, maybe less, according to NBC News.
  • Children with special needs may benefit from robot applications to help with problem-solving, and 5G will enable robots to be full-time assistants and support teachers by responding immediately to help with learning exercises.
  • With 5G, education can be personalised: it can help students continue their education outside the classroom to their phone or laptop. Regardless of distance or location, 5G empowers students to access the same information and exercises as their peers.

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