5G and the Government’s Lack of Foresight

Commentary, Disruption, Eamonn Brosnan

In the business of mobile communication, 3G, 4G, and 5G mean different things to different people. There are 2 different regulating bodies that publish standards for mobile communications, the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) and the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project). The 3GPP is an industry association that publishes standards for telecommunications companies and hardware makers. The ITU is a UN association that maintains international standards that governments use to regulate the technologies.

The 2 standards will eventually be the same as the 3GPP will submit their standards to the ITU, and hopefully all will come to an agreement. But even when that happens, what we, as customers, receive is rarely in line with these standards. The 4G standard from the ITU was 100 MBPS in download speed. Verizon, in the US, had a theoretical download speed of 50 MBPS on their 4G networks, which is only half of the specified standard. But even worse than that, their networks typically delivered only 12 MBPS on average.

This means that the actual, real-world, delivery of 4G was only 12% of the specified standard, as set out by the international regulatory body. The other US carriers had similar actual delivery results, though their predicted throughput was lower (which means they delivered something closer to what they promised than Verizon did). 

Where does that leave us with the new 5G standard that is starting to make it to market? AT&T is currently marketing 5G devices and network that is actually a 4G network, the other carriers have expressed their displeasure with this attempt to muddy the water on what to expect. Canadian carriers have recently purchased new bandwidth from the federal government and have prepared capital plans to deploy 5G network infrastructure (though they are currently waiting on the federal government’s review of Huawei to determine if that company’s equipment should be banned due to security concerns). I previously wrote about this issue.

The 5G standard for data throughput is 1GBPS (1000MBPS), which is 10 times larger than the 4G standard. Of course, in reality the 4G networks barely cleared 10% of that standard, so should we expect to see, in 5G, speeds that finally hit the standard for 4G? And if so, why do we continue to publish such unrealistic standards? The standard contains more than just a speed rating, with a variety of technical specifications from the radio frequency used to the connection latency, but the download speed is the only thing that we, as consumers, typically notice or care about. 

A system is considered 5G if it uses 5G equipment, which typically means uses 5G frequencies, and the ultimate download speed is not a necessary measurement. But we, as users, just want to know how good our streaming will be when watching YouTube or a TV show. The truth of it is that we likely aren’t going to see 1 GBPS streaming speeds on any 5G devices, outside of advertisements, but we will see much faster than our current generation of devices.

So, yes, we will be able to watch our favourite hockey team or favourite TV show on a better-quality stream, our emails will download quicker and developers will be able to extend the usefulness of our smart devices even more by adding more depth and functionality to applications. 

But beyond having a clearer image of a TV program, what will these higher speeds open up for us? The anticipated growth in volume and speed of data is opening up the door to us for technology to extend our abilities even further. Imagine a future where a surgeon in Toronto can perform surgery in Yellowknife via a surgical robot. Imagine a future where drones can deliver parcels or pizzas. Imagine a future where self-driving vehicles are able to communicate, wirelessly, to each other and to a central traffic controlling system, making your morning/afternoon commute shorter and less stressful. I say imagine, but these are things that are not far into the future. We are getting closer to reality on all of these technologies; and 5G, with the higher data speeds and lower latency, will help us achieve these milestones.

Unfortunately, our governments lack foresight to tackle these things in advance. Once Amazon is able to start delivering packages using drones (and they have been working actively toward this goal), how long do you think it will be until Domino’s tries to deliver pizzas by drone? How will we manage and regulate the number of delivery drones plying our airways?

Technology companies and auto-makers have been developing and testing self-driving cars. The accidents have been much publicized, but given how many companies are testing them, there have been very few accidents. This will be a reality within our lifetimes, but there are a lot of legal and regulatory questions about self-driving cars which need to be addressed or readdressed. Let’s start the public dialogue on these topics today so that we are ready for what will be coming soon.