Driving home on a rainy night after a long day at work, you may decide to nap as your car navigates the traffic and treacherous conditions. Just before reaching home, the vehicle opens your garage door and turns on the lights. Meanwhile, your fridge notifies your smartphone it has ordered and paid for supermarket supplies that are running low.
That could very well be a daily routine within 15 years. The key to realizing it is the deployment of the fifth generation of wireless communication (5G) networks.
A more basic benefit of 5G is it would ensure enough capacity to meet the rising demand for higher internet speeds from an ever-increasing number of devices. “Nationwide, resilient 5G networks will be needed to accommodate the growing demand for high-speed mobile broadband,” wrote Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at The Brookings Institution, in a January 2019 paper. “5G will be a determining factor in whether or not mobile-dependent users fully partake in the global digital economy.”
That economy has been booming since governments imposed lockdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19. For Egypt, deploying 5G also would support the government’s ambitious plan to build smart cities.
However, some challenges were never present in the four preceding generations of wireless communication, mainly due to the nature of the 5G signal, such as a service disruption during a downpour, causing dropped calls. That means there is a need for a more comprehensive infrastructure and the development of products and services accessible to laymen.
Fast and expensive
The advantage of 5G is that it could be as much as 1,000 times faster than 4G. At those speeds, machines could communicate with each other in real-time. For example, doctors could control a robotic arm located in another country to perform surgery. “That [is] impossible today,” according to a Fitch Solutions Macro Research report last year.
However, deploying a reliable 5G network is expensive. “Network costs could double as operators strive to meet [the] demand for increased capacity,” wrote Ferry Grijpink, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company.
The new network also requires 5G-ready devices with specific antennas, better cooling, and larger batteries to accommodate the excess speed.
According to VIAVI Solutions, a French 5G network developer, there were 378 cities in 34 countries with reliable 5G coverage as of February. The top-three are South Korea (85 cities), China (57), and the United States (50). In the MENA region, only Saudi Arabia (24) and the UAE (11) have cities with 5G coverage to rank fourth and seventh in the world, respectively.
Sameh Yamany, VIAVI chief operating officer, wrote on the company’s website that countries investing in 5G networks have forward-looking governments and companies. South Korea, for example, has the world’s biggest optic fiber network. According to Akami Technologies, an ICT company, South Korea has the fastest average broadband and cellular internet speeds. “[Optic fiber] is a critical technology necessary for mobile 5G to achieve its fullest potential,” noted Yamany. “Plus, the country also is home to global network equipment manufacturers actively working to advance 5G.”
Early adopters are ahead of the game in at least two respects. The first is they can now focus on the quality of the coverage. “The overarching driver will change from simply having 5G network availability to having the best 5G networks,” Yamany wrote.
The other advantage is 5G cities are already attracting startups and large companies developing related products and services. “In the 4G era, there was a choice between being a first mover and being a follower,” wrote Peter Linder, Ericsson’s head of 5G customer engagement marketing in North America, on its website. “Businesses now see first-mover advantages as the most important strategic priority for 5G.”
5G in Egypt
In September, the minister of information and communication technology spoke at a “5G Opportunities and Challenges Workshop” organized and hosted by the National Telecommunication Institute (NTI). “The event is in line with the state’s efforts to keep abreast of the world’s groundbreaking technologies to improve the quality and efficacy of digital services, and provide high-speed data transfer solutions,” the ministry’s press release said.
The National Telecom Regulatory Authority (NTRA) organized a workshop titled “5G Roadshow.” According to the authority’s press release in March 2019, the event dealt with 5G uses in the public and private sectors.
Perhaps the most significant 5G announcement was in November 2018, when the NTRA said it would start selling 5G spectra to all four mobile telecom operators beginning in 2020, as reported by Enterprise. Yet nothing new has been published regarding those licenses.
At the event, WE Telecom signed a memorandum of understanding with Ericsson to improve its 4G network and co-develop Egypt’s 5G network. The company has made no further announcements.
Grijpink, of McKinsey, wrote that “most operators will need to embark on a significant new build-out between 2020 and 2025.” That network will have to accommodate new devices and services that require at least 10 times the speed of the best 4G network, he noted.
A report by IHS Markit stated in a report that by 2035 the “full global economic impact of 5G will be evident.” It estimated the global market would be worth $12.3 trillion in goods and services only available via 5G networks. “About 22 million jobs tied to 5G will be created, and the network will add a staggering $3 trillion to global gross domestic product (GDP),” it said.
Early deployment of 5G networks also would give developers time to resolve outstanding issues. “How and where network operators deploy vast numbers of new stations, the lack of a clear business case for operators and consumers’ willingness to upgrade smartphones,” wrote Marina Koytcheva, CCS Insights vice president for forecasting, on the company website.
Iman Ashour, National Telecom Institute director, highlighted the most significant 5G-deployment challenges at a workshop last September. They include data security, providing very small aperture terminals (VSAT) to users, providing equipment and tools to connect existing networks, and adding terminals within the 5G system according to the latest global standards, said a press release for the workshop.
The Egyptian government should fast-track such investments in its planned 26 smart cities. 5G will become the “defining technology of smart cities,” Babak Beheshti of New York Institute of Technology, told Smart Cities World. “As a long-term investment … 5G is one of the safer bets one can make,” wrote Valerie Hernandez, a reporter at International Banker, in November.