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5G in the UK. What’s the fuss?

6 min read
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EE heralded in 5G as the new king of connectivity on May 30th, launching the cutting-edge tech in six UK cities. It began with a bang, a live-streamed 5G performance by London rapper Stormzy – but with claims of negative health impacts, questions over the security of Chinese manufacturer Huawei, and use cases currently at a minimum. Is the 5G ready for the main stage?

What is 5G anyway?

5G is the fifth generation of cellular internet claiming real-world download speeds of up to 1Gbps and ultra-low latency. It promises vast improvements over the sub-40Mbps speeds offered by its 4G cousin, but the industry is under no illusions that it will take several years before the top end of these 5G targets are reached consistently across the country.

Does my provider offer 5G?

EE are the first but won’t be the last provider to release 5G in 2019. Vodafone are hanging on closest to EE’s coat-tails but other major players will announce their own networks before the end of the year. Good news then! It’s likely there’ll be internet goodness coming to you soon… unless you don’t live in a major city, of course.

EE will begin with an initial six city offering, increasing to sixteen cities by the end of 2019. Here’s the full list:

The first six:

London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham, Manchester.

Expected by the end of 2019:

Sheffield, Bristol, Leicester, Glasgow, Newcastle, Hull, Liverpool, Nottingham, Coventry and Leeds.

It’s key to remember that 5G is an extremely new product that undoubtedly has been rushed to market with the odd corner cut. EE are wise to gain the marketing kudos of being first, and to extract cash from the eagerest early-adopters. I’d however expect the odd outage, inconsistent speed, and coverage to be a work in progress until the technology matures. It’s telling that 5G is being aimed squarely at consumers and not the enterprise at this embryonic stage. After all, companies complain the loudest, and litigate the hardest when things don’t work properly.

Negative health impacts of 5G

With each advancement in communications technology we see the “HEALTH RISK” poker pulled out of the fire again. The story with 5G is no different. It’s true that 5G signal is higher frequency than that used for 4G, but the alleged risks claimed cast too a wide net for me to take them seriously at this juncture. A quick search shows everything from causing cancer (what doesn’t) to affecting the psychology of your pets. Of course, experts should assess the impact of new technology – the health of a population is at stake – but at this moment in time I lean more towards speculation than fact. Much the same way as mobile phones were going to give everyone brain cancer, until you know, it didn’t happen.

Who are Huawei and why do I care?

More concerning than the health angle for the future of 5G is the fate of Huawei. A Chinese tech giant that has over recent months become US President Donald Trump’s favourite whipping boy. Mr Trump has embarked upon a trade war against them, thinly disguised as national security play, by banning US companies from doing business with Huawei.

In the UK, authorities have also been keeping a close eye on Huawei for vulnerabilities caused by sloppy coding practices. However no deliberate threats in their hardware or software have been revealed. To appease Trump the UK has vowed not to use Huawei in core networks, but will still allow their equipment to be used in edge infrastructure.

So, why SHOULD I care?

Quite simply, because the US holds a lot of leverage. President Trump is a confrontational leader, using this to solidify his image back home as “putting America first”. If he decides to play hardball and mandate that America won’t do business with anyone involved with Huawei – he can. At that point the UK will have to decide who is the bigger ally, China or the US. This potentially could lead to a situation where EE (and any other UK provider using Huawei’s 5G gear), must strip it out and start again. A very disruptive and excruciatingly expensive task.

The future of connectivity

A lot has been made about what 5G will bring to the party. Headlines such as “5G to enable autonomous vehicles” or “Robotic surgery a reality using 5G” are common at the moment. This is great, but they gloss over the fact that autonomous vehicles and robotic surgery alike, aren’t ready for mass adoption. Their greatest obstacle is gaining the trust of authorities and public approval; rather than needing faster communications infrastructure.

In the short term, the distinctly less impressive feat of waiting a few seconds less for downloads, and more reliable streaming of Netflix will probably be the main attraction of 5G – but just because we don’t have the use for all that bandwidth right now, doesn’t mean we won’t in 5 years time. I can easily envisage the majority of home broadband being 5G in the not too distant future and there are of course business cases too. It may prove an elegant solution for non-critical traffic such as Guest WiFi, for example. Over time as 5G becomes ubiquitous, telecom providers might offer the MTTR (Mean Time To Recovery) required for enterprises to trust it for business-critical circuits.

Tell us what you really think

In short, I see a semi-turbulent 2019 for 5G. I’m not yet convinced that customers will leap at the opportunity to spend their hard-earned cash on new handsets and contracts, for bandwidth that won’t change their life. I also don’t think many businesses will be keen to be guinea pigs. However as the product matures, decreases in price, the health concerns fade away, and Trump becomes BFFs with China again, I think we will begin to see the potential that the technology has. Whether that is self-driving cars or streaming cat videos in 8K on the train to work, only time will tell.