It has cost $20 billion for South Korea to upgrade infrastructure to offer 5G benefits to 45 percent of the 52 million population, spread over 100,210 sq km. Yes, such an upgrade has boosted connection speeds five-fold. But is such a speed upgrade good enough to justify the staggering additional cost? For South Korea, there may be an economic justification for such a costly upgrade of cellular technology. But is it equally justified for each country, particularly for less developed ones, irrespective of economic activities? Despite it, governments have been racing to upgrade 4G cellular networks for 5G benefits. Even developing countries like Bangladesh are after it. The underlying reason has been a belief that there is a natural correlation between technology upgrades and economic-social well-being. But is it always true? What is the benefit of increasing the speed of cars in congested cities and roads of less developed countries?
In terms of speed, latency, and capacity, 5G is far better than 4G; but what is the benefit of better performance? Is it more than the cost of replacing a 4G network with 5G is a crucial issue. Hence, we need to dig this vital issue further. Let’s take a fresh look at cellular technology; the purposes it serves; and its upgradation necessity.
- Evolution of wireless technologies—1G to 5G
- Application areas—crucial for deriving 5G benefits
- Killer apps for 5G benefits—so far, none
- Economic and Social benefits of 5G
- Import-driven justification of 5G gears for less developed countries
Evolution of wireless technologies from 1G to 5G benefits
On the 12th December 1901, from a distance of 3500 km at St. John’s, Marconi and his assistant George Kemp received radio signals produced from a high-power spark transmitter located at Poldhu, England. Marconi’s experimentation with radio waves propagating across the Atlantic opened a new era of communication. Marconi became known for commercializing this demonstration as one-way radio broadcasting; it also formed the technology core for future cellular communication. Within a few years of Marconi’s demonstration, the possibility of two-way communication over radio or wireless signal was conceived, leading to the issuance of a US Patent in Kentucky in 1908—giving birth to the idea of a wireless telephone.
Like many other technologies, the wireless telephone also emerged in primitive form, remaining as a concept for decades. This idea took the shape of practical demonstration in the 1940s when AT&T engineers developed cells for mobile phone base stations. Unfortunately, even after 50 years of birth, mobile phones were not portable. For example, in 1956, Sweden’s first automated mobile phone system had a user-side unit made out of vacuum tubes and relays, weighing 40kgs. The preferred place for installation used car trunks—making it a mobile phone. The progression of semiconductors led to replacing bulky relays and vacuum tubes with increasingly tiny transistors and other components. Consequentially, it led to the first-generation mobile system deployed in Tokyo in 1979.
1G system during the 1980s
Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Company (NTT) deployed the first generation mobile network in Tokyo in 1979. It operated in 800 MHz and 900 MHz frequency bands giving 10 MHz bandwidth, divided over 666 duplex channels with a bandwidth of 30 KHz. It used analog switching. Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA), using Frequency Modulation (FM), was suitable only for voice services. Despite having many limitations such as poor voice quality and battery life, low security, and bulky handset, it started diffusing in e US, Finland, UK, and Europe—due to portability. However, 1st generation systems had different names. The most popular ones are (1) Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS), (2) Nordic Mobile Phone System (NMTS), (3) Total Access Communication System (TACS), and (4) European Total Access Communication System (ETACS).
Global system for mobile communication (GSM)—2nd generation system
In the 1990s, European Governments and companies took the initiative of updating the 1G system—by adopting digital switching. During the same time, American company Qualcomm led the development of an alternate standard, the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) system. The introduction of GSM supported up to 14.4 to 64kbps (maximum) data rate, which is sufficient for SMS and email services. As a result, mobile communication entered the data age. In the beginning, CDMA was superior to GSM in terms of spectral efficiency, the number of users, and data rate. However, GSM became the base standard for further development in wireless technology—turning cellular into a creative destruction force to wireline telephony. Furthermore, CDMA could not sustain itself in the competition space, leading to its eventual departure.
Upgradation of 2G as 2.5G or 2.75G
Despite the significant upgrade over 1G, the growing popularity of data service quickly reached the limit of 2G. Hence, the necessity of addressing limitations such as low data rate, a few features on mobile devices, and a limited number of users, upgrades emerged. 2.5G upgrade emerged due to the introduction of General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), with a maximum 171kbps data rate. The next upgrade, 2,75G, included Enhanced Data GSM Evolution (EDGE)—capable of offering 473.6kbps. For handling higher data rates, the CDMA network got CDMA2000.
Third generation communication system—3G
Among many other features, the 3G technology upgrade introduced video calling for the first time on mobile devices. It became a reality due to the introduction of UMTS – Universal Mobile Terrestrial / Telecommunication Systems. At the same time, mobile handset makers upgraded their feature phones to smartphones. Unique features of 3G encouraged the development of software applications running over smartphones. As a result, in addition to offering voice and essential data services, 3G became technology core to support smartphone software innovations for multimedia chat, email, video calling, games, social media, and healthcare. Due to the high data rate and video calling, 3G became popular to support innovations such as multimedia messaging, streaming, internet browsing, and many more.
To improve the data of existing 3G networks, two updates were released. They are (i) High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSPDA) and (ii) High-Speed Uplink Packet Access (HSUPA). As a result, data speed increased to as high as 2 Mbps. HSPA+ High-Speed Packet Access plus led to 3.9G, Long Term Evolution (LTE). But such advancement could not keep pace with the growth of data demand due to the growing popularity of streaming, games, and video content.
Fourth generation communication system(4G)
Further advancement of LTE and LTE advanced wireless technology led to the 4th generation systems. Due to compatibility with the previous version, 4G became easier for deployment and upgradation of LTE and LTE advanced networks. Due to carrier aggregation to multiply uplink/downlink capacity, 4G allows simultaneous transmission of voice and data, resulting in a significant improvement in data rate. Furthermore, wireless transmission technologies like WiMax came into existence in the 4G technology portfolio to enhance data rate and network performance. Data rate up to 1Gbps, enhanced security, reduced latency (as low as 60ms), and voice over LTE network (VoLTE) are among the benefits of 4G.
The latest generation of wireless communication technology-5G
5G technology core comprises advanced LTE, Non-Orthogonal Multiple Access, and Orthogonal Multiple Access. It offers to speed up to 20 Gbps peak data rates—20 times faster than 4G. Its latency is as low as 1ms—60 times less than 4G. In comparison to 4G’s capacity of supporting 4,000 devices per square kilometer, 5G can accommodate 1 million devices within each sq km. Furthermore, 5G antennas use far less power than 4G, even less than 1W. As a result, 5G devices will have a very long battery life. 5G operating at a low-frequency band is suitable for connecting devices requiring relatedly low data rates like the watch. The mid-band is suitable for smartphones. And high-band is ideal for connected machines like autonomous vehicles, robots, and AR/VR gears.
The cost of deployment is far higher than 4G due to the very high requirement of base stations. According to a McKinsey report, ultra-shortwave mmWave 5G would require 15 to 20 base stations per square kilometer, compared with just two to five for 4G.
Application areas—crucial for 5G benefits
For voice and popular data applications, 4G appears to be good enough. To derive 5G benefits, we need applications for which low latency, high capacity, and high speed are essential. For example, although a 1Gbps speed of 4G can easily handle audio and video streaming, 60ms latency may not be suitable to support connected autonomous vehicles. In such applications, 5G’s 1ms latency could be an essential feature. But what about the timeline of deployment of autonomous vehicles? Furthermore, in the absence of mass-scale deployment of connected cars, would there be demand for the capacity of 1 million devices per square km?
Killer apps for 5G benefits—so far, none
Among the countries, South Korea is at the lead in deploying 5G. The deployment of 4G in South Korea in 2011 led to the explosion of data demand as users aggressively switched to 4G to watch YouTube and Netflix. But the deployment of 215,000 5G base stations, commencing in 2019, has yet to see such change. 5G base stations deployed in South Korea, the USA, and China have been primarily operating in low and mid-band due to a lack of killer applications. As a result, operators are failing to see a surge in average revenue per user (ARPU) to justify added investment in 5G. Hence, operators in South Korea have shown hesitation at investing the estimated $370 billion needed to set up the fastest 5G.
Economic and Social benefits of 5G
Although 5G technology is superior to 4G in all four key indicators, speed, latency, capacity, and power, there have been hardly any applications that can deliver sufficient 5G benefits. Even developed countries are finding it difficult to find applications to benefit from unique features. Despite such reality, there has been hype and proposals in a few less developed countries to upgrade 4G base stations with 5G equipment.
Import-driven justification of 5G gears for less developed countries
In addition to meager economic and social benefits which could be derived from 5G, less developed countries rely on importing all the equipment and even service they need to deploy the 5G network. These countries must spend as high as 80 percent of 5G project costs as import bills in USD. Already many of these countries are in severe foreign currency scarcity, leading to crushes like Sri Lanka. Despite the low scope of having 5G benefits, high foreign currency expenditure, and depleting foreign currency reserve, state-owned operators of a few less developed countries, like Bangladesh, are after 5G deployment. Such reality indicates that there has not been much for less developed countries in 5G benefits; hence, investment should be in the slow lane.
For sure, wireless or mobile communication has played a significant role in creating economic and social value out of communication. This technology has been instrumental in increasing teledensity from less than 10 percent to close to 100 percent in most less developed countries. On the other hand, mobility has been an excellent feature for adding value through telecommunication. Furthermore, offering voice and data through the same device and network has contributed significantly to economic and social uplifting. Hence, the evolution of wireless communication reaching 3G has been a journey of economic and social well-being.
But the role of 4G accelerating social networking and YouTube and Netflix-based content consumption has questionable value creation. Many studies have been indicating that smartphones and 4G have been sources of non-productive engagement over wireless communication. Hence, even before the emergence of 5G, the correlation between the advancement of wireless communication and socio-economic value creation started weakening. And the advancement to 5G offers little additional benefit, particularly to less developed countries. Therefore, 5G benefits should get priority in justifying additional costs—which does not exist naturally.