Futurists have been selling us a vision of a more connected world for some time now, one where we are all seamlessly accessing whatever we like, wherever we want. Unfortunately, the reality is often rather more prosaic, with consumers having to endure long waits to watch a video or suffering from service breakdowns at crucial moments, especially if lots of other people in the area are trying to access the same service.
Unsurprisingly then, just about the entire tech industry is currently getting excited about a technology that could help deliver on these promises. 5G is short for "fifth-generation cellular wireless," the next generation of mobile internet connectivity, which is expected to offer faster speeds and better connectivity on smartphones and other devices than ever before. 5G will enable greater speed, is able to move more data, has a lower latency, and is more responsive, and allows the connection of much greater numbers of devices, such as sensors and smart devices (think the Internet of Things).
5G is a radical break from its 4G predecessor - and should offer a similar leap forward in functionality. 5G will offer much faster connectivity, and deliver the infrastructure needed to carry the huge amounts of data required to make the Internet of Things a reality. With 5G in place, it will be much easier to handle thousands of devices simultaneously, such as smart street lights, video cameras and sensors.
Think of the number of sensors needed for autonomous vehicles to receive information, and the speed they need to do it in - 5G can deliver.
"It's anticipated that some 50 billion devices will be connected to mobile networks worldwide by 2020, and a large proportion of the communications that will occur will be between machines rather than humans," says Saleem Al Blooshi, chief infrastructure officer at Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company, the holding company behind UAE operator du. "In order for a mobile network to carry the weight of the smart city of the future, it needs a fast, responsive, and stable mobile network that can handle a vast amount of data. It needs 5G, and this is what we are gearing up for."
Somewhat more down-to-earth, 5G will improve experiences such as mobile gaming, as latency issues are reduced, and video calls will be clearer and less likely to break up. As the popularity of video and music streaming continues to soar, 5G will make it near-instantaneous.
"People are using video like they used voice in the past," Al Blooshi says. "They want to watch content on-demand instead of watching ‘linear TV', the type of television you have at home, which is limited to certain channels. 5G will also cater to high definition viewing such as 4K and HD. These viewing levels are increasing the need for much higher wireless speeds."
According to analyst firm IDC, 5G will accelerate the region's digital transformation journey by enabling a wide range of innovative applications built around technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
"The commercial launch of 5G services by operators in the GCC will be crucial to their ongoing digital transformation efforts as revenues from traditional telecom services continue to fall," says Ranjit Rajan, associate vice president, IDC Middle East, Africa, & Turkey. "As such, they are positioning 5G as one of the key technologies underpinning the development of smart cities and the use of autonomous/connected vehicles, robots, and drones."
Regional operators have already made headline announcements about 5G services. Expo 2020 Dubai has already signed up to be Etisalat's first major commercial customer for its 5G services, with the network expected to deliver Expo 2020's ‘smart site' services to 30,000 visitors per day.
In Saudi Arabia, Al Khobar was recently proclaimed as the first city in the region to test a 5G network. The kingdom has established a national 5G task force to drive the technology's deployment, with Saudi Telecom Company (STC), having launched a live 5G network in Saudi Arabia, the initial phase of operating the service once 5G becomes generally available.
Networking giant Cisco is working with a number of regional service providers, including du and STC, to unlock the commercial potential of 5G mobile networks and deliver revenue-generating services.
"With 5G, many industries in the MEA region will find new ways to leverage technology, ranging from connected cars, home and office security and automation, smart metering and utilities, maintenance, building automation, automotive, healthcare and consumer electronics," says Ali Amer, managing director, global service provider sales, Cisco Middle East and Africa. "Businesses can use real time information to deploy video-based security systems, while healthcare professionals can remotely monitor the progress of their patients. 5G will not be just about enhancing the user experience, it will also be about enhancing how businesses can use the mobile network to boost their competitiveness."
However, some industry experts are urging caution. Data and analytics company GlobalData recently pointed out that 5G won't be widely commercially available until 2019 - and that even by the end of this decade, only 0.09% of all mobile data traffic will be carried over 5G.
"Whereas 2G, 3G and 4G were primarily radio focused, 5G will represent an entire system with radio, a telecom core, and operations support systems (OSS) - all transformed to support new requirements," says Chafic Traboulsi, regional vice president, head of networks Middle East and Africa at Ericsson.
"This process will involve new radio technologies, a virtualised cloud-based core, and end-to-end management and orchestration to facilitate automation and concepts like network slicing."
Ericsson has 40 memorandums of understanding (MoU) for trials, and is working with universities, institutes and industry partners around the globe.
"These early trials are key to developing leading technologies for the 5G standard, as well as competitive product portfolios," says Traboulsi. "The ecosystem is essential to 5G."
As well as enhanced mobile broadband and greater machine connectivity, Traboulsi cites critical machine type communication as a key benefit of 5G, as it can deliver reliable, resilient and instantaneous connectivity with stringent requirements on availability, latency and throughput.
However, there is still a ways to go before such solutions can be deployed - and operators need to do a lot of work to get there.
"The reality is that the present day networking technologies, frameworks and architectures are insufficient to cope with the demands of tomorrow's digitally connected 5G world," says Cisco's Amer of the challenges ahead.
"Cisco is continuing to innovate on performance, density, virtualisation, cloud and mobility to help make 5G a reality for service providers. For this, networks need to scale in entirely different ways. To drill down further, 5G is not just about the new spectrum, it is about changing the entire network to be highly scalable."
While 5G initiatives "will open up considerable opportunities relating to the national transformation ambitions of programs such as Vision 2021 in the UAE and Vision 2030 in Saudi Arabia, operators are likely to encounter a few challenges in the short-to-medium term," says IDC's Rajan.
"The most significant of these challenges will be implementing a network rollout plan that enables them to maximise the return on their 4G investments, but there will also be issues around the availability of sufficient spectrum, the conceptualisation of new use cases and business models, and the integration or migration of IoT technologies.
Next year "will be the year" that 5G starts to make an impact, Alaa ElShimy, managing director and vice president, enterprise business, Huawei Middle East, said recently in an interview with ITP Media Group. The infrastructure requirements needed to make 5G a reality means that "the investment from operators needs to be big", he explained.
"But at the same time, from a business point of view we believe it is going to make a big difference to many different industries."
GlobalData also cites a "lack of killer use cases" that can immediately drive 5G uptake.
The ability to offer superior digital services is a clear business differentiator: a recent a survey by Riverbed Technology highlighted that 91% of global business decision makers believe that providing a successful digital experience is more important to the business than it was just three years ago.
However, while use cases such as autonomous vehicles, smart connected healthcare devices, and other smart solutions are attractive, the faster, more responsive networks that 5G will deliver are only part of the picture. Solutions still need to be developed that can utilise the 5G network performance. "5G is defined as a "paradigm shift" because it will be the first network that isn't just for human-use - ‘things' will take up a huge amount of connectivity when 5G is commercialised, including cars, gadgets, medical equipment, security software, and entire homes," says EITC's Al Blooshi. "The mass adoption of 5G in the UAE will completely transform the landscape when it comes to how residents utilise their various connected devices, and further strengthen the [IoT] services in the region, which du provides. However, even though from a network perspective we will be ready, we still need to wait for terminals and handsets to really catch up."