It is not an easy time to be an internationalist, to seek global solutions to global problems amid what feels like one of history’s periodic inclinations toward divisiveness.
Yet, ironically, we’re on the verge of a new age of interconnectedness, when the daily lives of people across the planet will be more closely intertwined than ever. Advances in technology will usher in the age of fifth generation, or 5G, telecommunications. And, if past is prologue, this technological evolution will lead to dramatic societal changes.
The first generation of mobile communications, with brick-sized phones, brought just a handful of users expensive and often unreliable analogue voice calling. The second generation introduced digital voice service that was less likely to be dropped, available to many more people and ultimately cheaper to use. 3G ushered in the mobile internet, mobile computing, and the proliferation of apps. 4G (often called LTE) made possible all we have come to expect of mobile broadband: streaming video and audio; instantaneous ride hailing; the explosion of social media.
We take all this connectivity for granted, but the engineering inside the device in your bag or pocket today would have seemed impossible less than 20 years ago.
So, where will 5G take us?
Think about a world in which not just people but all things are connected: cars to the roads they are on; doctors to the personal medical devices of their patients; augmented reality available to help people shop and learn and explore wherever they are. This requires a massive increase in the level of connectivity.
5G is the technological answer, making possible billions of new connections, and making those connections secure and instantaneous. 5G will impact every industry – autos, healthcare, manufacturing and distribution, emergency services, just to name a few. And 5G is purposely designed so that these industries can take advantage of cellular connectivity in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before, and to scale upwards as use of 5G expands.
But generational change in mobile communications doesn’t just appear overnight. It requires significant effort in research and development and the resources necessary to support that effort. Work on 4G took nearly a decade and the challenges were not easy. Consider one of tens of thousands of problems that needed to be solved as described by an engineer at Qualcomm, where much of this technology was invented:
“When the signal leaves the base station, it can undergo a loss of up to 130 decibels before it reaches your mobile phone. To put that loss into perspective, if you consider the transmitted signal power to be roughly the size of the Earth, then the received signal power would be equivalent to the size of a tiny bacteria.”
That is a tremendous loss of power, and it requires some pretty impressive engineering to compensate for the effect of the loss on the words, pictures, and other data we send and receive across the airwaves in a transparent, seamless and instantaneous way.
But we weren’t alone. The international engineering co-operation that goes into development of a telecom standard illustrates how much can be achieved when disparate national, commercial and scientific parties work together for the common good.
Like 3G and 4G, 5G is the responsibility of the standards-setting organisation 3GPP, where the handful of companies that invent technologies come together with many, many more companies who will develop products that implement those technologies.
Think about this process for a moment: engineers from rival inventing companies, rival product makers, rival wireless network operators, all from different countries and continents, discussing, testing, striving to perfect tens of thousands of different technical solutions that ultimately make up a standard like 5G.
They judge each technical solution using a merit-based, consensus-building approach. This process has been at the foundation of a technological revolution that spawned myriad new industries, millions of new jobs and well over a $1 trillion in economic growth.
It’s the fusion of commercial self-interest with the recognition that some problems are best solved by working together. And it’s not a bad model of human behaviour if we are to meet the World Economic Forum’s goal this year to address the problems of “a fractured world”.
The benefits and advantages of 5G technology are expected to be available sometime in 2019. We believe 5G will change the world even more profoundly than 3G and 4G; that it will be as revolutionary as electricity or the automobile, benefitting entire economies and entire societies.
Developing nations have rivalled or surpassed their industrialised counterparts in benefiting from the deployment of mobile technology, and there’s every reason to think 5G will have an even bigger levelling effect than its predecessors.
Economists estimate the global economic impact of 5G in new goods and services will reach $12 trillion by 2035 as 5G moves mobile technology from connecting people to people and information, towards connecting people to everything.
Many of the benefits probably aren’t yet apparent to us. Wireless network operators initially resisted proposals to give their customers mobile access to the internet, questioning why they would want it. At the dawn of 4G’s adoption no one could have predicted the new business models that grew on the back of mobile broadband, like Uber, Spotify and Facebook.
Now, according to the European Patent Office, the number of patent applications related to “smart connected objects” has surged 54% over the last three years, suggesting new, related and as-yet unknown inventions will arrive even before 5G becomes available.
This is news that should encourage us amid glum commentaries on the state of the world. There is promise yet in what we’re capable of achieving.