Does 5G have potential to be a harmonising technology layer?

Does 5G have potential to be a harmonising technology layer?

There is plenty we need to know about 5G that we do not. Jefferson Wang, 5G Global Lead of Network Connected Services at Accenture speaks about the value-chain of a 5G network in the ‘future home’ and what this could mean for smart cities

It seems the adoption of 5G is yet to make a bang in India; but rumour mills constantly swirl with potential dates as early as August 2021. While we see device manufacturers churn out 5G-compatible smartphones and tablets to better serve the potential of a connected home, there is still yet to be enough comprehensive dialogue about the C Band spectrum (a new set of airwaves designated by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) that hopes to fix the perilous state of 5G.

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Speaking with The Hindu on all things 5G, policy, ease of connectedness and more, Jefferson Wang, Accenture’s 5G Global Lead of Network Connected Services, says over a video call from San Francisco, USA, “C Band is incredibly important globally; the bigger goals for Accenture are for our clients to clear for, prepare for and deploy 5G products. When you look at how important C Band, or sub-6, is to the industry, this catalyses the device manufacturers, the chipsets and modems required, the different form factors of mobile devices beyond the smartphone that we will start to put on to the network.”

This year’s Mobile World Congress saw a lot of discourse of 5G services which have accelerated out west but still have a long way to go. Wang, who is a regular speaker at MWC, elaborates on the fragmented nature of our ‘connected world’ while breaking down some of the ongoing discussions around 5G. And yes, 5G is constantly on the receiving end of skepticism and paranoia not just from policy-makers and consumers but apparently actors too.

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Edited excerpts:

DKB: The last year of the pandemic accelerated a lot of 5G evolution. The 5G market, as we know it, is huge across India – but implementation at a policy level will take some time. How do you see the conversation progress around 5G in India for the coming year?

JW: It’s incredibly important that policy around many areas of the value chain get discussed, addressed and hopefully accelerated. A lot of times, when you look at availability of spectrum, you ask ‘what are the incentives?’ and ‘how do you help with the availability of spectrum?’

The next part of the value chain asks ‘how are we able to work with the local communities and other parts of zoning and licensing?’ because when you look at traditional sub-1 networking, there is still density required for a 5G network which means you need to increase the number of 5G small cells (femtocells, picocells, and microcells, all providing different coverage limits). So that is the really important part of policy.

In India, specifically, you have to think about how to work through all the fragments of the 5G value chain: licensing, getting people to agree to small cells, what type of power is available to back all of this in area to mount the small cells, how to get construction out to these areas, local police to ensure this is all safe, and more. India having 28 States and eight territories, there is no standard cookie cutter process to undertake all of this geographically and policy-wise too.

DKB: One of the more prevalent dialogues in terms of ‘connectedness’ has been the parallel dialogues and progression of ‘smart (or future) homes’ and ‘smart cities’ in the space of 5G adoption. Can you share your perspective on these tech evolutions for the next five to ten years?

JW: Not many people bring this up, but the home is a starting point. It is actually the very beginning of making people feel at home anywhere. The progression is, as some would call it, ‘lightly automated home’ to eventually ‘tomorrow’s personalised, predictive future home’ and this is the beginning of the journey because it indicates you can move beyond the home. The home is a microcosm of the broader picture of a smart city. Within the next five years, we predicted, we would teach our kids at home, work from home, get healthcare at home, enjoy virtual entertainment, get our deliveries home – COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this.

We take that one step further and ask how to make that consumer feel at home in their car ride to work, in their office, at the mall or gym. Naturally, the next step is connecting the district part of the community to get to a smart city infrastructure – a smart, personalised environment.

Does 5G have potential to be a harmonising technology layer?

You need various devices, yes, but you also need strong, flexible connectivity in a city, and personalisation of data, too.

DKB: What about the role of edge computing (a distributed computing paradigm that brings computation and data storage closer to the sources of data) in all of this?

JW: The most important part of edge computing in all of this is latency. There’s a big difference between edge latency and speed. Speed is how fast something travels, while latency is the actual time it takes for that travel. Today in our networks, we have devices that ride over some radio spectrums, and the data eventually makes its way back to some compute; be it cloud or a data centre.

But if we intercept that and we add some edge compute, a closer point, it shortens the physical distance that data has to travel. There are a couple of beauties to this: naturally, if the latency is reduced, your response time is increased; also if you design the solution well, the data cost is reduced. The service provider doesn’t have to change and send all of this data back and forth over these hundreds of miles.

Finally, this can potentially change ecosystems. Accenture works on overall tech solutions, and now you look at the devices. If the device is closer to the user and the edge computing device is closer to the device producing that data, you potentially don’t need a high-cost processor. A GPU is typically what we use to process a lot of the AI. So if we can use a lower-cost GPU – because we don’t need to process at the fastest speeds, we can offload that onto the edge – that lowers the cost of the device, which increases adoption.

DKB: There’s still a lot of paranoia and skepticism around 5G and the future home. As a technologist, what role do you play in myth-busting and responsible dialogue around 5G?

JW: Federal governments and administrations of global communications are responsible for the safety of what is broadcast, the power levels that are decided upon, and how ultimately, this is used for all of us. We leave the safety and policy to the government officials.

Our job, as technologists, is more to talk about the similarities and differences in what we have in technology today. When you look at spectrum and Wi-Fi today, the latter being very dense and every home is broadcasting Wi-Fi, they’re broadcasting at five gigahertz. We started this conversation with C Band, and C Band is at three gigahertz. It’s surprising that people aren’t up in arms about Wi-Fi but when it comes to a service about 5G, people are very concerned about that. Scientists say the same thing that it’s proven to be dangerous. Part of it is what we’re using today and part of it is allowing the government to show, with science, what safe levels of power are required to create these networks.

DKB: Let’s wrap this up by elaborating upon what this means in terms of the 5G connectivity layer in terms of infrastructure. What if fragmentation and synchrony?

JW: The way to look at this now is we have many ways to connect. We have unlicensed spectrum like Wi-Fi, LoRa, and several different low-powered networks that are ‘best effort’ networks. Then we have other ways to connect like licensed spectrum that’s more managed, reliable and secure: 3G, 4G, 5G (which is still coming). So the consumers, developers, device manufacturers have a choice to make, which takes time and effort.

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Factors include questions around: ‘Do you want to develop on the lower cost, but on a ‘best effort’ network? Do you need a hub to pull all that together on an unlicensed spectrum? Or if you go to cellular, how do you deal with the cost of that? Does 5G have potential to be a harmonising technology layer? If we harmonise on that layer, how does that potentially lower the cost of increased adoption and increased experience?’

Let’s look at the home as an example; we have to look at the device you’re getting – such as a camera, a doorbell, a sensor – and decide what you need from it. And then you look at the back of the product and find out if it works with your existing connectivity, or if you need to buy a new hub, or wire this to the actual Ethernet of the home. Then you have to download an app (we already have app fatigue) then enter some massive 16-digit password in the home just to get connectivity.

That’s a lot of friction and set-up to get the device in, we haven’t even talked about getting the device to work with the others, putting it on a dashboard, sharing data. Today, I have three different applications for the single security system in my home! Then we look at home entertainment, lighting, and more. There’s an incredible opportunity to harmonise this on one technology, on one network. You should be able to go to one dashboard to know what’s going on in your home in terms of security, entertainment and so on.

The next thing is to figure out the business models to get everyone to want to do that – for the user’s benefit. We have to consider how to scale that for increased personalisation. The nature of connectivity plays a huge role in that; we are all on different networks and technologies, and we can’t communicate.

DKB: It’s funny, we look at popular culture representations of the ‘future home’ and everything is in a single hub or dashboard. It’s interesting how it’s helped shape some dialogue around the connected home. Hopefully this all ties in with the notion of ‘we should use the technology rather than the technology using us’.

JW: Absolutely, we want consumers to demand better. Pop culture has helped say ‘this is something basic and something we deserve’. Let’s say we get to that harmonised connectivity, set-up and integration – and the network does the rest. No need for more apps, more passwords.

Now we have something in the future where the automation and personalisation are as good as the information we get. Technology exists to assist, save time, save money, save effort.

It was incredibly validating that many of the use cases in the first four chapters of ‘The Future Home in the 5G Era: Next Generation Strategies for Hyper-connected Living’, which I co-wrote with George Nazi, Amol Phadke and Boris Maurer, are starting to at least come into the public eye and required.

To an extent, perspectives on how to execute emerging technologies and connectivities can always be updated and are required. There’s always new development methods.

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