From its ubiquitous low latency connection, to the digitalisation of rural communities in a post-pandemic world, 5G broadband has the potential to radically reshape the future of digital communications as we know it.
The combined influence of Industry 4.0 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are presenting internet service providers (ISPs) with a number of challenges. The precipitous rise in demand for cloud based services, along with advances in AI, IoT and edge computing, have dramatically increased the enterprise strain placed on broadband and mobile networks. At the same time, from the consumer side, ongoing adoption of streaming services like OTT broadcasting and cloud gaming, are continuing to increase the amount of data being funneled through network infrastructure.
In addition to the transformative effects of the Fourth Industrial revolution, the global pandemic has the potential to further disrupt the effective provision of internet connectivity. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in March, lockdowns, furlough schemes and remote work initiatives have had a profound effect on the global economy, as well as the day-to-day lives of consumers. Patterns of user behaviour have shifted, stressing ISP networks at different times of day; remote work and social distancing prompted a huge uptick in the use of video conferencing, as well as other virtual tools; and overall screen time for the average user jumped up dramatically, from just over 10 hours per day to almost .
Both of these trends emphasise the increasingly non-negotiable need for high-speed, low-latency internet connectivity in order to meet the demands of a post-COVID, digital world. One of the most promising solutions to these issues is the advent of 5G broadband.
What is 5G broadband?
Traditional fixed line broadband uses copper or fibre optic cable lines to deliver connectivity via a telephone line, which then uses a router to connect nearby devices to the internet. Mobile broadband connects the router to the nearby cellular network, in much the same way that a smartphone accesses 4G. Current generation mobile networks can’t deliver the necessary speeds over mobile broadband to make them a viable alternative to fixed line internet. However, the high-speed, low-latency connections that 5G promises may be about to create a solution that can not only compete with fixed line internet but outshine it completely.
5G broadband still uses a router, but, instead of plugging into a phone line, the unit connects to a nearby 5G mobile mast.
According to Vodafone, 5G broadband is designed to work at average speeds of around 150 to 200Mbps, whereas the average speed of a broadband internet connection in the UK last year was measured at just 54.2Mbps by Ofcom.
“5G broadband’s increased speed, reduced latency and improved capacity (relative to 4G wireless networks and wired broadband networks) will enable consumers to use more devices reliably and simultaneously on their home network,” says of (GWS). “It will also allow for streaming higher definition content, taking advantage of IoT applications, and much more.” In an interview with Mobile Magazine, Dr Cartner explains that the increased speed and connectivity that 5G broadband can provide will also be a huge supporter of applications like telemedicine and remote learning - both critical needs during the pandemic.
at , agrees. He notes that, because 5G broadband can deliver higher speeds without the need for installing and upgrading existing fibre infrastructure, the technology could create a large amount of much-needed resilience in the UK’s network. “This cellular connectivity will be able to drive instantaneous coverage across the UK without the need for a fixed network, which will give businesses and their people the flexibility to work anywhere, something very relevant in a post-pandemic world,” he explains.
The fact that a single 5G mast in the centre of a street could provide 150Mbps+ download speeds to surrounding homes, without needing to install fibre in a dozen houses, could rapidly speed deployment and reduce costs to both telecoms and consumers, Carter adds. “Deploying 5G broadband is quicker and less costly than deploying fibre-to-the-premises,” he explains. “With standalone 5G, consumers could have access to ultrafast speeds that would enable the same sorts of home applications possible over fibre-to-the-premises. Further, 5G broadband service charges are likely to be more affordable for more consumers when compared to monthly costs for fibre connectivity.”
Will 5G broadband replace fibre?
While 5G broadband can theoretically deliver consistently faster speeds than the UK’s current fixed broadband infrastructure, both Carter and Hayes are quick to note that the technologies are in no way mutually exclusive.
“Both 5G and fibre are technologies that can provide super-fast, low latency connectivity and will become critical for businesses over the next few years,” says Hayes, adding that the two technologies “will become the backbone of the UK.” He also adds that fibre and cellular broadband will work in tandem, with improved fibre networks enabling 5G to reach its full potential and that, while 5G broadband has sometimes been “mooted as a replacement for full fibre,” both are necessary components of the future digital infrastructure landscape.
Digitally transforming rural communities
In 2016, the United Nations declared the internet to be a catalyst for the enjoyment of human rights - specifically the right to self expression, which the UN conflates with a number of economic, social and cultural rights. While this doesn’t mean that access to the internet itself is a human right per se, it does imply that it is a necessary tool for the maintenance of other rights the organisation does recognise as essential. Setting aside the complexities of international rights law for a moment, the ability to get online is undeniably essential to being able to start a business, get a job, go to school or interact with other people.
In the last 10 months, COVID-19 has only made that truth clearer. In a truly disturbing trend, a number of children, particularly in India and Iran, have comitted suicide due to lack of a smartphone or tablet preventing them from attending online classes. In the UK, a 2018 report identified as many as 700,000 UK students without regular access to a smartphone or tablet for online learning, and 60,000 of those students had no internet access at all. Industry experts warn that access to devices and internet connection are at risk of creating a digital divide along class lines and across the urban rural divide.
The ability of 5G broadband to bring faster connectivity at lower costs to rural and disadvantaged areas could be an essential tool in ensuring the new normal isn’t a punitive reality for underprivileged members of society. “5G broadband should have a significant positive impact in rural areas and in those communities currently lacking reliable network infrastructure,” predicts Carter, adding that the technology should be more cost-effective and easier to deploy than the last mile of wired networks, a fact which he sees translating into lower service fees for the end customer. In a recent report conducted by GWS, the company found that “the proportion of consumers located in rural areas who thought that faster 5G deployment could help boost their economic situation considerably outweighed those in rural areas that did not – by a margin of almost three to one,” explains Carter.
According to Hayes, the logistical and CapEx hurdles that have prevented fibre networks in rural areas from keeping pace with urban environments will be significantly reduced by 5G broadband. Small cell infrastructure can be used by mobile network operators and ISPs to expand coverage to rural areas and ‘not-spots.’ He adds that the use of Open RAN technology can boost a network’s range by a number of kilometres, allowing more users in remote locations to get access to better coverage. “Cradled in existing street furniture or even rural telegraph poles, so they’re unobtrusive and agreeable to councils, these small cells are being quickly deployed across the country,” he says. “Increasing connectivity and pioneering digital inclusion for many people by bridging the digital divide, they will also play a key role in 5G use cases due to their proximity to the end user.”
The future of coverage
According to , the process of extending quality broadband services to rural markets “continues to be a significant challenge for many countries throughout Europe.” Infrastructure rollouts are nevertheless being compelled, both from a regulatory standpoint - with Sanchez also noting that “it is common for many local regulators to compel mobile operators to increase investments to serve rural communities and other disadvantaged segments of the population that are still offered only subpar options for broadband access” - and through what Hayes defines as a sense of responsibility from regional mobile network operators. He elaborates, “Ensuring that all areas of the country are connected is the responsibility of all mobile network providers with a joint effort across industry and society required to ensure everyone has access to the connectivity required for an all-IP world.”
Looking to the future, it’s clear that COVID-19 has thrown into sharp relief the issues with equitable connectivity that already existed. Moving forward, Hayes, Carter and Sanchez all agree that 5G broadband - in tandem with wireless networks - will have a transformative effect on the way we work, play and otherwise live our lives on the web.