FIFTH generation (5G) wireless technology has been in the news over the past year, bringing with it promises of advancements in the nation and faster speeds in connectivity.
Global leading Information and Communication Technology (ICT) provider Ericsson predicts that global mobile data traffic will grow eight times by the end of 2023, which means a need for a more efficient technology, higher data rates and spectrum utilisation. But what is 5G and what does this mean to consumers?
Intro to 5G
5G is actually a label to signify the fifth generation of cellular network technology, and is defined as any system using 5G New Radio software as classified by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP).
Ericsson defines a 5G network as having data rates up to 100 times faster, with network latency lowered by a factor of five, mobile data volumes expanded by a factor of 1,000, with 10 times better battery life for more sustainable networks and remote sensors.
In a nutshell, this technology serves as a next step towards connecting people. With 4G, mobile video consumption and higher data speeds were made possible, ushering in the era of mobile internet. 5G, on the other hand, will serve to digitalise industries, allowing not just the interconnectivity of people, but also the ability to interconnect and control machines, objects, and devices.
However, this technology is not without its drawbacks. Due to the higher bandwidth, as well as the spectrum at which 5G operates, 5G has a shorter effective range, which will necessitate upgrade works to the ready infrastructure to be able to achieve full coverage. At the same time, the ready infrastructure needs to see upgrades as well to be able to use the full potential of the 5G network.
According to analysts and industry leaders, 5G in its current incarnation will serve businesses more than the average consumer at this point, considering the strengths and weaknesses of 5G.
“The magic of 5G truly happens when in the spectrum range upwards of 100MHz,” explains Ericsson Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh president and managing director Todd Ashton, stating that the 100MHz band within the spectrum allows for 5G to perform at its true potential of super-low latency and high speeds.
One example provided by Ashton is in the manufacturing of blade-integrated discs in jet engines, which represents an extreme case of the value 5G brings to the industry of metal manufacturing.
Identified as one of the most demanding processes of all in metal manufacturing, it was explained that precision and accuracy are vital to the process. This high value component is milled out of a single piece of metal in a process that can take a full day or longer.
“Today, there is no satisfactory way to monitor and correct the process while under way, and the result is revealed only when the entire milling process is completed,” says Ashton, adding that any deviations would be severe and require a lot of time to rework.
Ericsson’s 5G trial system allowed a vibration sensor mounted directly in the production machinery to transmit the vibration spectrum in real time to the control system. The very low latency of less than one millisecond helped correlate the vibration to the tool’s position and enable prompt adjustment of the production process.
The continuous real time data transfer over 5G also allowed the generation of a digital twin, a virtual reflection of the component to be generated, showing the details of the process results. Real time monitoring of the process would enable saving a lot of rework time as deviations can be corrected before they become severe.
Other aspects that would benefit from a low latency include one particular use case in Malaysia, where remote health monitoring is being tested in the 5G OpenLab operated by DiGi.com Bhd and Cyberview Sdn Bhd. This represents part of the Digital Healthcare Cluster, where 5G will be driving advances in healthcare.
Identified is how the low latency of 5G can make it possible for remote diagnosis, surgery, and rehabilitation to be developed and deployed, as these will place a special premium on low latency and immediate response times, while also enabling remote medical treatment assistance for ambulance and emergency medical services.
Through the provision of sufficient bandwidth, the amount of data that can be transmitted near-instantly becomes large enough to enable these technological advances.
Another way 5G can benefit businesses, especially in terms of the manufacturing, agricultural, and oil & gas sectors, is how it enables the Internet of Things (IoT) to further improve connectivity and efficiency in terms of allowing Massive Machine Type Communication, where manufacturing lines in particular can see leaps and bounds in efficiency with little to no human intervention or direction.
“Technological advances have always been the drivers of the industrial revolutions over the years, and 5G is the driver for the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” says Ashton.
To address the issue of maintaining connectivity to a 5G network across a nation despite the inherently shorter wavelengths, it becomes necessary to talk about the infrastructure in place for 5G.
As it stands, analysts believe 5G will only see a commercial consumer rollout “most likely in 2022 or 2023.”
Toh Woo Kim, telco research analyst of Alliance DBS Research notes that network sharing among operators is being promoted to further speed up rollout, and that fixed line assets are becoming increasingly important to support the fiberisation of cell towers in preparation for 5G.
“Network capital expenditure is higher for 5G as compared to 4G, with the higher speed coming with a higher price tag. This can be seen from the need for more cell towers or sites to support the rollout of 5G,” says Toh.
This comes as a logical solution, considering the earlier explanation that 5G signals are more easily absorbed by obstructions.
According to Morten Bangsgaard, chief technology and information officer of Maxis Bhd, the group has already been stepping up its network infrastructure over the last few years.
“As 5G requires very high bandwidth on transport network, we have been upgrading our transport network to support gigabit speeds and at the same time virtualising our core network elements for flexibility and scalability for the capacity demands of this technology,” says Bangsgaard, adding that the group will have 10 live 5G sites in the Klang Valley and in Langkawi by the end of the year, having signed an agreement for the provisioning of 5G networks with China-based Huawei.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has also issued a public inquiry on the issue of spectrum allocation, which in turn led to Telekom Malaysia Bhd making its own offer to be the sole infrastructure provider for the network, with promises that the group would provide fair rates and serve purely as an infrastructure provider, while claiming that a single provider will be better able to maintain the infrastructure.
Clement Chua, analyst at Kenanga Research, notes that it is probably in the best interests of the market for the infrastructure provider to not be exclusive.
“TM themselves are not too heavily involved in the mobile business, so it might not be the best migration,” says Chua.
Both Chua and Toh agree that it is unlikely for TM to clinch the position as the sole infrastructure provider, as MCMC aims to encourage network sharing, due in particular to the National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP).
Tom Loozen, Ernst & Young Global Telecommunications Sector Leader, notes the need for telco operators to catch up to the rapidly accelerating pace of evolution across the telecoms industry.
“Operators have no choice but to transform if they are to remain relevant to consumer and enterprise customers, and achieve growth. To succeed in this environment, they need to take a long-term view of emerging technology deployment and create a more cohesive workforce that thinks and collaborates across organisational barriers,” says Loozen.
However, there are also other means beyond cell sites and towers in terms of lowering bandwidth needs and readying the network in terms of infrastructure.
Teoh Wooi Keat, country manager of data centre player Vertiv in Malaysia, states that edge computing, which involves bringing computation and data storage services closer to the location it is needed to improve response times and save bandwidth, is becoming a prevailing global sentiment as more process-intensive applications such as 5G, IoT, and machine learning become more commonplace.
“This is especially true in Malaysia where we are seeing a lot of our customers deploying micro data centres that focus on speed, flexibility, and adaptability to support their edge applications,” says Teoh, adding that the deployment of 5G can be assisted through the strategic deployment of data centres to support the network.
The National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) as announced by Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo is targeting a provision of internet connections with an average speed of 30Mbps in 98% of populated areas and Gigabit speeds in selected industrial areas by 2020 and in all state capitals by 2023. It covers satellite connectivity and wireless networks utilising technology such as 5G as part of that plan, to supplement connectivity in areas where fiberisation would not be as efficient.
As with all initiatives, the NFCP comes with its own price tag, a cool RM21.6 bil over the next five years, ending in 2023. The immediate question here is usually “Who’s paying? The taxpayers?” and the answer is actually surprising.
The Universal Service Provision Fund will actually be footing roughly half of the bill, which comes up to between RM10 bil and RM11 bil, depending on the split.
“The breakdown for the estimated RM21.6 bil will be roughly 50:50 or 60:40. It’s not really fixed because it’s a rolling action plan and the estimate of the RM21.6 bil comes from our database on the USP fund,” said MCMC chairman Al-Ishsal Ishak.
The remainder of the bill will be paid by the industry players (i.e. Maxis, DiGi, Celcom Axiata, Telekom Malaysia, TIME, etc) through commercial means.
One particular point of the plan is that it will see the sharing of infrastructure between telco providers. According to Gobind, this will optimise current expenditure and enable the provision of services in a shorter time.
The minister also noted that infrastructure operators have agreed in principle to implement the sharing of their infrastructure, which covers passive infrastructure like poles and fibre optics.
“To ensure that the NFCP targets can be achieved, there is a need for collaboration among all quarters including the service providers, state governments, ministries and relevant agencies,” he said.
The minister said all menteris besar and chief ministers have already committed to facilitating digital infrastructure development so that all projects planned under the NFCP can be implemented effectively at a lower cost.
But how exactly will 5G play a role in furthering connectivity, especially when it comes to bridging the digital divide between the rural and urban populations?
According to Ashton, 5G can serve as a complement to fibre networks, especially where it is not feasible for fibre networks to be deployed.
“There needs to be a more surgical view to the deployment of cell sites, since capital, along with spectrum, are finite resources that have to be carefully used,” says Ashton.
An example would be a rural town being unable to be a part of the fibre network due to geographical constraints. Through the use of a 5G network, repeaters and cell sites can be set up to bring connectivity and high speed internet to the town. – Jan 7, 2020
The key difference between 5G and its predecessor is the amount of data that can be transmitted, due especially to the high frequencies that 5G operates in. To put things in perspective, 4G operates in radio frequencies below 6GHz, while 5G operates in the range between 30GHz and 300GHz, which cannot be reached by 4G.
At the same time, 5G also uses shorter wavelengths. What this means is that antennas can be much smaller, allowing for more devices to be connected to a single cell site for 5G, compared to 4G. In short, 5G networks can beam ultrafast data to a lot more users, with high precision and little latency.
The downsides, however, come from the fact that the high-frequency signals of 5G are easily obstructed, leading to issues with range and obstructions. 5G signals are easily absorbed by other objects and obstructions in the way of the signal, even humidity and rain, which can put a damper on the range 5G signals can effectively travel to.
As Ericsson Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh president and managing director Todd Ashton explains, this means there is a need for a combination of low and high frequencies for 5G.
“5G utilises ranges from below 2.3MHz all the way up to 28MHz. In the range below 2.3MHz, speed is low, but the signal will be able to penetrate two walls and a phone. However, as we move up the frequencies, such as the range of 2.3MHz to 5MHz, you get faster speeds to the point the signal can support you watching a YouTube video while still being able to punch through two walls,” he says.
“However, as we get to the millimeter wavelengths of 26MHz to 28MHz, these signals can’t be expected to punch through a wall, but you will be able to download a movie in seconds,” says Ashton, adding that another difference between the two is that 5G networks can more easily understand the type of data being requested, and the same network can provide low rates and higher rates of data transference for different devices on the same network at the same time.