• United States
Samira Sarraf
Regional Editor for Australia and New Zealand

5G expectations vs. reality in Australia

Oct 07, 20208 mins

Smarter cities, farms, and factories; seamless computing; fast connectivity everywhere—these are the promises of 5G networks, but getting there comes at a high price.

5G light trails
Credit: PLEJ92 / Getty Images

5G cellular broadband is arriving with many promises to shake up IT departments, but just like every new technology there comes the hype and the expectation that this new technology will fix everything. And just like every new tech, 5G will likely both fail some of those expectations but also present use cases that had not been considered previously.

Jonathan Restarick, managing director of communications, media, and technology at Accenture Australia, says the consultancy expects the growth on the 5G will be twice as much on business applications as on consumer applications.

“It will be the real excitement of how our businesses will get value from this new technology, not just teenagers doing gaming and entertainment services. It’ll be about how we’re creating new business models and new value chains and those types of things that really improve the productivity and efficiency of business models,” Restarick says.

5G: What it is and where it is in Australia

5G is at its core a radio technology for cellular networks that carries more data more quickly than previous generations, such as the current LTE or 4G technology and its predecessor 3G technology. It’s promised to work as fast as Wi-Fi networks in some locations, though that speed can vary considerably based on the specific 5G variant used, as well as environmental factors such as building materials and other obstacles. As with 4G, 5G can be deployed not only for public networks—the ones our phones run on—but also private networks, such as on oil rigs, in farm land, at work sites, in ports, or in wind or solar farms, for use as a wired broadband replacement for both internet of things (IoT) devices and computers.

Telstra and Optus began rolling out 5G networks in parts of major Australian cities in 2019, the beginning of a multiyear effort to make the technology available nationally. Both Telstra and Optus provide websites showing their 5G availability.

As of August 2020, Telstra has more than 1,500 5G sites on-air across selected areas of 53 Australian cities and towns, and Optus offered coverage in more than 900 sites. TPG Telecom, a result of the merger of Vodafone Australia and TPG, has so far a plan for 1,200 5G sites and currently has a test site in Parramatta. Prior to the merger, TPG decided to halt its 5G efforts in January 2019 blaming the government’s decision to ban telcos from using Huawei-manufactured 5G equipment.

The next step will be the auction of the millimetre wave, or mmWave, spectrum which is being prepared by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), in the 26GHz band, for early 2021.

The opportunities for 5G in business and industry

But what are the real opportunities for 5G? Accenture’s Restarick suggests three categories: business and industry opportunities, and edge computing.

Business and industry opportunities with 5G

A network that is faster, more resilient and always available—that is how Restarick describes 5G, and it is why he believes it will bring business and industry opportunities. “We do see things like smart healthcare, smart manufacturing, smart city, smart spaces, more intelligent applications, and seamless government services becoming the norm,” he says.

Restarick describes a scenario where after flying into a foreign country, after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, where a person seamlessly goes through customs, collects luggage, and gets into the city, then to a hotel, with the entire experience taking place without various checkpoints, handoffs, or credit cards—all as a result of a “connected framework and infrastructure” that is possible as 5G provides this connected capability.

But today, Restarick says there isn’t the 5G capacity for this level of connectivity. 4G does provides the necessary speed for such a scenario, but it does not offer the capacity or reliability that is expected of 5G. For 4G to work as reliably as 5G is expected to achieve that today, there would be the need for software that solves the handoffs between these different access points and that deals with “complexities” such as caching and data veracity.

As 5G gets deployed, Restarick sees an opportunity for further development and use of voice and Ai assistance by IT departments.

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing people to work from home if possible, many organisations now realise that employees can perform their daily work activities from home with few issues or constraints. Organisations also see an opportunity for saving money in office space and all that comes with it.

Restarick says this change has created a sense of “true mobility”, which could mean people not just working from their PCs of laptops at home but walking or travelling between places and “potentially looking at the screen and typing on the keyboard may not be the best user interface; maybe the user interface is an earphone and voice assistance”, he says, which would result in a change in the user interface standards. 5G would be needed to enable that vision.

5G and edge computing

Gartner defines edge computing as “part of a distributed computing topology where information processing is located close to the edge, where things and people produce or consume that information”. That topology is particularly useful in settings with lots of monitoring or other devices that need to communicate with each other and to core systems elsewhere, which can be anything from shopping malls to agricultural farms and from oil rigs to solar or wind farms.

5G signals tend to fall off more quickly than 4G ones, part of a physics compromise that allows them to transmit more data faster. That means more 5G cell towers and cell sites are needed to cover a given area than for 4G. But that increased density brings with it an advantage, Restarick says: There’ll be more compute power in those towers and sites, leading to a fast turnaround and quicker and more intelligence at the edge of the network. That greater computing capability then enables more artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, and smart devices deployments.

Having that computing power located at cell towers and sites—an edge computing topology—can significantly improve access time to the cloud. So users get the benefit of faster data transfer to the cell towers and sites as well as faster connections to and processing for the cloud back end.

“Once we’ve got this flexibility to do things, and not be constrained by location or by mobility, and we have intelligence and connectivity available anywhere, there’s all sorts of constraints we work with today that won’t exist,” Restarick says—eventually.

5G for private networks

One of the possible use cases that has emerged with 5G is the private 5G network. Currently, organisations can use private 4G networks, almost always deployed by a cellular carrier on their behalf, or Wi-Fi networks. Gartner analyst Leif-Olof Wallin sees private 4G networks as a better option than 5G for now, due to cost.

To get the needed speed, Wi-Fi access points need to be wired, which can be difficult and even dangerous in many areas such as factories or utility plants, whereas 4G or 5G networks require far fewer cell sites and thus wiring to cover the same space. In those cases, “it is super expensive to pull cable; having a few LTE antennas is safer and faster, Wallin says. But overall, “5G is not going to replace Wi-Fi, especially Wi-Fi 6, because Wi-Fi is more resilient, has more uptime, and doesn’t require getting a carrier involved in your business-critical processes.”

Another, very expensive option that Accenture’s Restarick says theoretically exists is a “truly spectrum managed independent network”, which dedicates part of a public carrier’s network for private use, often pooling several public networks. He said that the concept of sharing the radio access network is something that has not taken place in Australia. “You’d never see Telstra, Optus, or Vodafone ever want to share the spectrum or the radio access network between themselves.” Still, they may have to in the future because “5G is becoming expensive. … [and may reach a point where] they’re much more open to potentially partitioning some of that [5G infrastructure] and doing a bit more sharing. If there was a particular customer that says, ‘I want to absolutely have my own network’, they would have to pay appropriately, but it’s technically feasible.”

5G’s payoff is uncertain, and its costs are high

Independent telecommunications industry analyst Paul Budde is more sceptical about 5G’s potential payoff. He tells Computerworld Australia that the cases for IoT or automated vehicles are just promises. “There are no business models for it, there is no revenue certainty, so there will be very little investment in that part of the technology. Developments here will be on a case-by-case situation; for example, on campuses, mining sites, etc.”

Gartner’s Wallin says, in a bit of an exaggeration, “I’m still having a hard time getting my arms around about normally intelligent people getting interested 5G, which has no real business value” outside special cases such as where Wi-Fi can’t be easily or safely deployed.

Budde says that there may be opportunities for smart cities, such as 5G for IoT in the city centres, but these could take years to develop, and one of the main issues is the requirement for more mobile stations (such as cell towers and sites), so there is little interest to invest in these cases.