The start of ubiquitous 5G

The union of two frontier technologies – 5G and edge computing — promises a monumental leap. That, at least, is what the telecommunications community would have you believe.

In theory, by 2034, these technologies are expected to generate US$212 billion of economic expansion in the Asia-Pacific region[1]. In practice, however, we must overcome some barriers before they are ripe for implementation – and that requires a nuanced and focused approach.

The Benefit That We Can Actualize Today

For 5G, the most conspicuous barrier is the need for material use cases that cannot work without its deployment. No use cases, no value creation, no justifiable implementation. It’s as simple as that.

Let’s look at the rise of 4G networks as an example. Estimates suggest that between 2012 and 2017, worldwide mobile operators spent more than US$1 trillion in capital expenditures to upgrade their networks[2] before the technology could add US$3.6 trillion in economic value in 2017[3]. The ability to profit from 4G – business models and services built on material use cases like photo sharing, video streaming, social media and e-commerce, became the driving force for its eventual ubiquity.

With blazing download speeds, 5G will purportedly make 8k videos a portable reality. With massive connection density coverage, 5G will enable thousands of IoT devices to function in small confined areas. The only issue – nobody currently seems to know what to do, profitably, with all that throughput and device density coverage.

Latency, through which 5G can deliver seamless real-time experiences, seems different. Presently, the examples of what can be done with low latency seem more compelling.

Take autonomous cars as an example. Although a great deal of the AI and machine learning models required to drive a car autonomously are expected to run inside the car itself (in this case, the ‘device’), some responses may have to be processed remotely. That will only be possible or acceptable if the remote processing loop is fast enough to keep cars safely in motion on the road.

A focus on ultra-low latency could therefore be the most viable path to deploying and benefiting from 5G. Achieving lower latency, in one way or another, tends to be reliant on some degree of edge computing.

Edge Computing the Conduit

Edge computing, or the practice of pushing computational resources to the fringes so they can be physically closer to end-users, is first and foremost a response to the laws of physics. While electric waves travel at the speed of light, a data center 500 km away still requires a 3.3 millisecond roundtrip – this is too long for many IoT applications to function effectively.

As another example, consider Augmented Reality (AR) gaming, which overlays real and virtual imagery into single views. Triangulating spatial references with live movements and in-game reactions is likely to be an unsuitable computational task for existing smartphones. For computation to happen outside devices, the feedback loop must either be ultra-fast, or you spoil the very essence of the augmented experience.

Applications like AR gaming and vehicle telematics are perfect for the 5G and edge computing low-latency mix, which we believe may become the single largest demand driver for the technologies yet.

The only twist, at this point, is establishing where to locate edge computing servers. You will need to first understand how different types of usage profiles cluster geographically and in relative distance to various network elements.

Should a complementary gaming server, for instance, be in city A, city B, or both? What then is the optimal mix of locations that deliver the quality of experience required at the lowest possible investment? Thankfully, these pressing questions can be addressed using intelligent network analytics.

Ultra-Low Latency Rules

To summarize, the biggest premise for 5G and edge computing in the context of ultra-low latency is twofold:

  1. Many applications require too much computational power to run on local devices
  2. The benefits from computation-hungry applications will only be correctly experienced if they are delivered in real-time

By focusing on how we can create material use cases based on the immediate need for ultra-low latency, we can more quickly drive the implementation and monetization of 5G and edge computing, as a pair. Use cases based on the benefits of high throughput and large device density can then eventually follow suit – innovative minds will surely find ways to make good use of them.

[1] Mobile Industry Could Generate $565 Billion in Additional Global GDP by Unlocking the Right 5G Spectrum: GSMA Study

[2] What 4G’s Run Can Teach Us About the 5G Future

[3] Two-Thirds of Mobile Connections Running on 4G/5G Networks by 2025, Finds New GSMA Study