Unravelling the 5G conundrum


We are yet to know what 5G and its surrogate technologies will do to enterprises in the coming days. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Among the technologies that will define the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is the fifth-generation (5G) mobile network.

In a short period, the world has seen mobile network technologies grow from 2G to the current 5G. Each generation brings more power to send and receive more information at a faster speed, with less latency and achieving greater efficiency in utilising the wireless network.

The improvement in user experience often leads to more newer use cases. The introduction of new use cases like 5G goggles for blind people is changing earlier perceptions of the technology. A blind German lady, Noemi Ristau, was able to ski downhill by herself wearing 5G glasses.

The 5G technology by itself is mind-boggling. When used in combination with other 4IR technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) blockchain and natural language processing, makes everything we have known about mobile technologies look like it was from medieval times.

When you see countries fighting over a technology, there is big hidden money in the new enterprises they are struggling to control. Take crime, for example, a combination of IoT, AI, robotics and 5G could quickly arrest the intruder and hold him/her until bonafide police officers arrive.

In electoral processes, we may not need an identity card. AI could easily recognise faces and register where and when you voted and perhaps tally the votes every second. No one knows where the digitisation trend will stop.

Still, the conveniences it provides and the levels of productivity it brings are much more than we know.

Many more use cases will emerge, but those fighting to get a piece of 5G through space know more future use cases. It could explain why many companies are in search of the best ways of deploying the technology.

Many are exploring low earth orbit satellites to deploy the technology either to complement terrestrial 5G by delivering broadband directly to homes. They include Amazon's Kuiper, Facebook's Athena, SpaceX's Starlink (associated with Elon Musk), OneWeb, O3B and Telesat.

While Microsoft is betting on unused White spaces to deliver 5G on its Airband into rural areas, Alphabet’s Loon is sending giant air-filled balloons into the stratosphere to provide the same.

Each of these companies has their revenue model sorted out to deliver 5G broadband for free to the entire world by 2025. However, it is not clear how regulators from other parts of the world will react. It does not appear that these giant investors have any plans to seek permission in any other country even as they cause mayhem for existing operators.

China being the first to market through terrestrial wireless networks could have the first-mover advantage, but wireless from above could be a hard nut to crack. They are most likely betting on the robustness of terrestrial networks over satellite solutions that could have problems in dense areas.

Whatever it is that is happening with the new 5G, it is a wake-up call to look back to Joseph Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction. Perhaps it is time for telecommunication companies to creatively begin destroying themselves and recreate themselves before they are sorted out by the so called Over The Tops, a euphemism for avoiding regulatory frameworks in smaller countries.

In my view, the disruption won't stop just with telecommunications. It will possibly spread into the financial sector. Just remember that Facebook did not phase out its Libra cryptocurrency on the emerging 4IR technology blockchain. Just like the Internet in the Third Industrial Revolution, these 4IR technologies will eventually cause pain to many existing enterprises.

The greatest tragedy is when we fear and look helpless in the face of companies with a research budget equivalent to some country's GDP. When mighty Uber landed in our cities, many countries sought to fight them physically. In contrast, others barred them from their land even though they openly proclaimed their countries to harbour the principles of a free-market economy.

We are yet to know what 5G and its surrogate technologies will do to enterprises in the coming days. But there is cause to worry and perhaps prepare for a disruptive future.