Zulfath Saheed considers the issues surrounding 5G take-up both at home and abroad

In this period of continued lockdown across many parts of the world, there’s been a seemingly endless stream of conspiracy theories in relation to the origins of the disease that’s come to be known as COVID-19.

One such theory is that 5G networks are behind the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, so much so that there have been reports of telecommunications masts being set on fire – in the so-called developed world, no less – by those who believe there’s a connection between the technology and the global disease outbreak.

While experts have quashed rumours of these alleged links, recent events serve to highlight the degree of scepticism surrounding the wireless technology that’s witnessed rollout in several parts of the world. Sri Lanka too was preparing for a 5G fuelled future before the spectre of COVID-19 appeared to hang over it.

LOCAL TAKE-UP The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) officially reinitiated trials with all major operators as initial steps in the road map to launch 5G services, which it says “would be an imperative in the vision of creating a digitally driven smart nation.”

As part of their preparations to transition from 4G to 5G mobile services, Sri Lanka’s foremost telecom operators had already conducted pre-commercial 5G trials last year.

A recent report by research and consultancy firm Paul Budde Communication also notes that “the telecom sector overall is being bolstered by the continuous expansion of the fibre and LTE networks, as well as growing investment in 5G.”

GLOBAL BACKDROP Large-scale adoption of the fifth generation of wireless communications technology supporting cellular data networks began in 2019. At present, many telecom service providers in the developed world are upgrading their infrastructure to offer 5G functionality.

Nevertheless, 5G technology is not without its concerns with countries including the US, Australia and the UK taking action to eliminate the use of Chinese equipment in their 5G networks, citing fears of potential espionage by equipment vendors from the PRC. This was brought to the fore in the Huawei security scandal last year.

FUTURE OUTLOOK ​With consumer demand shaping the development of mobile broadband services, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) projects the number of connected devices on the internet to reach 50 billion any time from 2025 onwards.

It notes: “The fifth generation of mobile technologies – 5G – is expected to connect people, things, data, applications, transport systems and cities in smart networked communication environments.”

“It should transport a huge amount of data much faster, reliably connect an extremely large number of devices and process very high volumes of data with minimal delay,” the ITU adds.

Moreover, it points out that 5G technologies “are anticipated to support applications including smart homes and buildings, smart cities, 3D video, work and play in the cloud, remote medical services, virtual and augmented reality, and massive ‘machine to machine’ communications for industry automation. 3G and 4G networks currently face challenges in supporting these services.”

The achievement of all 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – ranging from affordable and clean energy to zero hunger – are also likely to be accelerated by 5G.​

POSSIBLE CHALLENGES Nevertheless, 5G networks do face major challenges. The ITU elaborates that for instance, the higher capacity and data rates anticipated through 5G require greater spectrum, and more spectrally efficient technologies going beyond what is used in 3G and 4G systems.

“Coverage of a given area will require a significantly increased number of base stations that will increase the complexity of the infrastructure including the need to deploy radio equipment on street facilities such as traffic lights, lampposts, utility poles and power supplies,” the global organisation explains.

Additional challenges relate to 5G connection links between the core network and base stations, which rely on fibre and wireless technologies: “Considerable work is required for implementing fibre services and ensuring availability of wireless backhaul solutions with sufficient capacity, such as microwave and satellite links, and potentially with high-altitude platform stations (HAPS) systems where they ​are deployed.”

Furthermore, spectrum is viewed as a scarce and valuable resource, alongside intense competition for spectrum at the national, regional and international levels.

OFFICIAL OVERSIGHT Industry experts claim that regulations may also need to be adopted and applied in a bid to avoid interference between 5G and other radiocommunication services, as well as to engender a viable mobile ecosystem with an eye on the future.

Here in Sri Lanka, with the focus turning to overcoming a crisis like no other amid the backdrop of a deadly pandemic, it remains to be seen what the future holds for the next generation of wireless technology.