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Is 5G the catalyst for smart cities?

Is 5G a true catalyst for smart cities? Christian Mildner, Sylvania Connected Solutions, takes a clear-eyed view.


5G is a hot topic these days. With massive bandwidths and transmission speeds 10-100 times faster than existing technologies, it is often predicted that 5G technology will revolutionise cellular networking – and indeed, society – by enabling many new use cases and applications.


In fact, researchers have been working on 5G networks for a long time but only now, due to some step changes and innovations in underlying technologies, has it become possible to move the concept from theory into practical application.


Generally speaking, cellular network operators have three options to increase network capacity. They can use available spectrum more efficiently, deploy more and better network infrastructure, or acquire additional spectrum. A combination of all three options is being used to create the new 5G networks.


For example, spectrum efficiency is increased by the latest massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology, which allows operators to use multiple antennas simultaneously to increase data throughput. Beamforming is a new technique where transmission beams are formed and targeted towards specific end-devices.


5G networks will be more flexible, scalable and contextually aware than current networks.


5G is also going to use a wide range of high frequency bands that are currently not being utilised. These higher frequencies offer much greater bandwidth than lower frequencies and provide wider channels and faster data rates. However, their shorter range also drives the need for network densification and a significant amount of new networking infrastructure.


Importantly, 5G networks will be more flexible, scalable and contextually aware than current networks, recognising the different requirements of particular use cases and meeting these needs in programmable and switchable ‘slices’, according to priority and need.


It is important to note that 5G is not one new technology or innovation; rather, it is a combination of multiple new and emerging technologies and techniques applied together. This is why the transition to the full 5G vision is likely to be a gradual process over multiple years as the technology pieces are put in place by the operators.


Impact of 5G


The truth is, no one really knows yet what the true impact of 5G will be. It is likely that at the beginning, the technology will be available for some very specific use cases only the ones that exploit its strengths and play down its weaknesses.


The most widely discussed use cases today centre around autonomous driving, manufacturing, immersive media, and fixed-wireless access. Timing will be important too as some of the suggested use cases are still ten or more years away – fully autonomous driving, for example, will require a significant amount of new regulations and laws to be developed before large numbers of autonomous vehicles can hit our roads.


No one really knows yet what the true impact of 5G will be.


To explore some of the possibilities, imagine some of the following use cases:

  • Autonomous vehicles could collect huge amounts of data and share it with other cars on the road instantaneously, thereby creating a functional mesh of vehicles which all learn through each other. Vehicles would be able to move as a smart swarm, rather than each one trying to work out all of the others’ motivations and intentions from afar, wasting processing power trying to predict and respond.
  • Drones and robots could become real-world avatars for each of us. We could own a drone or rent one from a squadron using some form of drone-sharing system. This would allow us to experience things we otherwise couldn’t due to physical impairments or financial or priority based-constraints.
  • The Internet of Things is currently limited to relatively low speeds, low power and low data volumes and could grow very quickly with possible use cases exploding. Imagine digital frames replacing windows in our buildings with live, super high-resolution feeds from a rain forest or the beach.
  • Cloud-based processing is predicted to take off too. Imagine video games where all the generation of graphics happens in a server farm somewhere on the other side of the world and the information is delivered wirelessly to our screens. It is instant and the controller at home is purely an access point for the gaming resources, rather than containing these resources itself.
  • Extrapolating this concept further, consider mobile phones. Rather than cramming super high-end computer chips into our mobile handsets, what if we could primarily use them as access points for computing resources that are located elsewhere. This would increase a mobile’s battery life by days, while simultaneously increasing computing power because the phone could simply reach out to cloud-based processors through a 5G data tunnel and take as much computing power as it needs, when it needs it. All the computing would be done on remote server farms and the output is simply delivered to our screens without any perceivable lack in transmission.


In fact, we could reach a point where all of our devices are simply screens with cellular antennas, plugged into 5G data pipes connecting them to super computers in giant warehouses, and we just tap into them when we need them, whatever we need them for, at whatever scale of power we need in the moment.


This is a compelling concept, especially as we are running into hard limitations when it comes to microprocessor components and battery technologies.


5G risks


However, it is not all positive news and positive possibilities. There are also some real concerns about 5G technology. For example, many worry that 5G will widen the gap between urban and rural dwellers and their access to high-speed internet. In fact, there are still huge swathes of land in the world that do not have cellular network coverage at all.


Another trend to watch is that mobile network operators are turning themselves into media and IoT data companies, diversifying away from being simply big pipes delivering data to users. They increasingly try to create and sell unique content on top of their network services, amongst other things, to recoup the massive investments they make in 5G networks.


The concern here is that if net neutrality rules are not enforced, these network operators could negatively impact the quality of their competition’s offering to prioritse their own – something we have seen in the past when net neutrality rules were not enforced.


5G: Innovation of the decade or niche technology?



After much noise and many years of research, 5G seems to be finally happening. There’s no doubt, it has the potential to significantly change not only technology but also society.


5G could be the innovation of the decade. However, it could also remain a niche option – definitely interesting for some specific use cases like autonomous vehicles, but beyond those not relevant for most people most of the time.


After much noise and many years of research, 5G seems to be finally happening.


It could prove to be just another upgrade or shift, and one that isn’t as relevant to the masses as is currently being predicted. After all, many of the revolutionary predictions are being made by companies that have some stake in this technology doing well.


I say, let’s stay optimistic and explore the possibilities but also keep expectations moderated and proceed with caution.


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