Let’s start with a surprise: commercial mobile phone services have been available from AT&T since 1949. The post-war mobile experience involved a push-to-talk button and 80 pounds of equipment, and with so few radio channels that only three people could talk at once in the few cities that were covered. Something like modern voice service emerged in the 1970s, but the first popular data services took a couple of decades more. The first general purpose cellphone data became available around 2000 and achieved 50 to 100 Kb/s, but now, LTE phones routinely achieve 30 or 40 Mb/s.
Alan Turing would have eaten his slide rule for any of these things, but a 500:1 improvement in 18 years is impressive. The upcoming rollout of 5G cellphone services promises even more, but just as with the ever-increasing resolution of cameras and monitors, there’s a legitimate question over what can be done with so much connectivity. On paper, 5G networks (according to the IMT-2020 specifications) can achieve 20 Gb/s, 20 times faster than most home networks, although the “user experienced data rate” is likely to be 100 Mb/s.
That’s still a data rate similar to a respectable office network, and more than adequate for video so sharp it makes no difference on a cellphone display. Frankly, given that most HD content is only broadcast at the 10s of megabits per second, the existing LTE infrastructure is usually fast enough for that. 4K video may be two or three times the data rate, but a screen big enough to make it relevant is not, in itself, portable, so the availability of mobile data to fill it is almost irrelevant.
So the things that drive 5G adoption won’t be those that drove 4G, at least if we’re to avoid user fatigue at the procession of new reasons to buy a cellphone. That may be no bad thing for the European and Japanese mobile communications industries, for whom change might represent a chance to make up lost ground. According to a report by the CTIA, a telecoms industry association, an American technological lead cost European and Japanese jobs during the 3G and 4G era. If the new world is to retain its grip on the sector, it’ll need to at least match China, which is currently described as “holding a narrow lead” in the race to 5G rollout.
Regardless of who gets there first, the market will only support a cellphone infrastructure that offers consumers something they want. The favored child of 5G implementers is unmistakably the world of virtual and augmented reality, something that has a genuine need for very high resolution video. With its need to fill the user’s entire field of view with good-looking pictures, VR has a hunger for sheer pixel count that display technology is currently struggling to satisfy. It’s easy to make 4K displays several feet across; it’s more difficult to make one small enough that it can reasonably be strapped to someone’s head.
If the display issue is ever worked out, there might well be a sudden demand for lots of 8K video. Verizon’s recent demo from U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis worked well, although it might not have been a brilliant demo of 5G. The Google Daydream headsets used are dependent on current cellphones that have only modestly sufficient resolution for the job. The wider consumer reaction to VR has also been a little indifferent. The Oculus Rift is perhaps the best known of the headsets, but Best Buy still closed down 200 of its 500 in-store demo setups in early 2017. It suffers a vicious circle: the headsets have been expensive, there’s a perceived lack of content, and since nobody reads articles about equipment they don’t own, it’s very difficult to get the word out.
It’s an open question as to whether VR will go mainstream, and the limits are not cellphone bandwidth. Augmented-reality applications such as Pokémon Go have possibly seen more popularity, although to date they’ve not been dependent on huge data transfers from central servers. The professional applications are perhaps a little more immediate, with TV companies seemingly anxious to avoid expensive, cumbersome satellite uplink equipment as soon as a cellphone-based link can do the same job to the same standard. This is increasingly possible on LTE, with a bit of luck and assuming nobody else nearby is attempting to stream video of the same news event. A variety of video link products are already available from companies such as JVC, who add their Connected Cam to the cellphone-enabled range at the 2018 NAB Show. The Connected Cam is very clearly a shot at the traditional newsgathering market, built to operate from the shoulder in the rough and tumble of current affairs journalism.
JVC’s tools work nicely, and there’s no question that 5G should increase the overhead available for this sort of thing. It’s no secret, though, that a big new technology will need broad consumer support to do well. To some extent that support is almost guaranteed, since many cellphone subscribers receive a new handset contractually every couple of years, and those handsets will soon begin to support 5G. Even if VR isn’t ever a large enough market to soak up the available bandwidth, and even if there aren’t enough broadcast news operations to leverage the sheer speed, 5G will roll out one way or the other.
Probably the safest assumption is that cloud computing, whether that’s storage of photos or emails or the remote processing of video, will continue to grow. As more people do more things with it, the demands on bandwidth can only increase. Yes, that’s a very general conclusion, and it refers to nothing more than an expansion of what we already do. The question is whether anyone would rather assume that a raft of new technologies will suddenly appear, or that people with cellphones will keep taking more pictures with more megapixels.
It could go either way, but as so often the safe bet is the least exciting.
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