Talking up all the amazing stuff 5G will make possible has a big downside: it is likely to create public backlash long before the technology fulfils its potential, for a whole lot of reasons.
We haven’t even got the standards nailed down yet, but we’re talking about ubiquitous, super-fast connectivity enabling self-driving cars, connected homes, smart cities and much more. In fact it will be immensely expensive, take years to deploy and will deepen the digital divide. How the industry and others present 5G needs care.
Click towards a new internet
The BBC’s Click programme on TV this week and available on iPlayer spelled out the challenges of deploying 5G, but made room for some grandiose claims, such as those by Professor Mischa Dohler, Professor of Wireless Communications, King’s College London, who said that by using 5G for robotics, “we will build an internet which will allow us to democratise labour the very same way as the internet has democratised knowledge and information.”
These are big goals and they make 5G justifiably exciting – far more so than the simple speed boosts promised by 4G ever were.
But they could be years from reality, even once 5G networks arrive, and in fact most people are probably only concerned with fast, reliable broadband coverage, which millions of Britons don’t have – fixed or mobile. There has been public anger and regulatory pressure directed at BT for the millions it spent on the TV rights to football, which have not made anything like the anticipated returns, while underinvesting in Openreach.
Hence where 4G coverage is poor, people will not be consoled by remote promises of 5G and the huge investment operators pour into it. Nor are they likely to be top of the list for access to 5G: the technology will initially be rolled out in urban areas as the networks need a return on their investment quickly. Never mind that this is typically where there are fast networks already and the practice would deepen the digital divide.
Not just 5G but a network of networks
5G may not be ubiquitous for a long time because it needs huge numbers of tiny antennas – that work rather like a relay team – to pass the fragile millimetre waves around obstacles. 5G should be thought of as a network of networks that incorporates the best of the connectivity we have now with 5G, according to Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Director of the Smart Internet Lab at the University of Bristol, speaking on the Click programme. This is especially true when we’re on the move, when our devices will switch seamlessly and automatically between 5G, Wi-Fi, 4G and Li-Fi connections.
Handing off to Li-Fi to stay online in a train tunnel is one thing, but slower networks won’t do for self-driving cars which need zero delay connections to maintain safety.
Ruth Spencer, Digital Economy Manager, Bournemouth Borough Council acknowledged on Click that this affects the potential of self-driving vehicles, but added that perhaps to start with 5G would enable self-driving freight vehicles on motorways for long distances – although the ultimate goal is to get freight off roads to reduce pollution and congestion.
To end on a more optimistic note, Bournemouth, which boasts the worst urban 4G coverage in the UK, is the exception to the usual network deployment rules. It aims to be the first British town or city to have 5G. Wouldn’t it be great if that approach became the rule?
Useful read: What Is 5G?