The urban impact of 5G

The next generation of mobile broadband data network is being discussed in almost every context you can imagine, from technology to healthcare to sociology to urbanism. 5G is coming. But what is it, what does it enable, and how is it relevant to the citizens of urban places? And therefore, what does it mean to those designing and moulding the cities in which we live?

5G will replace or augment your existing 4G connection, providing exponentially greater bandwidth alongside massively reduced latency – the time it takes for data to get from A to B.

5G operates across a broad range of frequency spectrums. Lower frequency ranges (below 6GHz) provide a more reliable signal but are limited in their bandwidth. These ranges are nearing saturation in many cases from overloading of existing 4G networks. 5G also leverages higher frequency spectrums, which provide massively increased data rates and much lower latency, but which are quite limited in their ability to penetrate buildings, and the coverage area for a single antenna is limited, thus necessitating much larger numbers of antennae to achieve uniform and reliable coverage.

Two technologies will be applied to increase network capacity in crowded frequency spectrums and to overcome limitations of higher frequency ranges: beamforming and massive MIMO. Beamforming direct a stronger beam of signals at a specific target, increasing the capacity of the beam and reducing transmission errors thus increasing overall efficiency of the network. Massive MIMO uses large arrays of antennas transmitting over the same frequency to parallelise data transmission and thus scaling the capacity of the network.

Current mobile networks are rather dumb in the way they apportion a single pool of spectrum between all users in the vicinity, which results in a performance bottleneck in densely populated area. With Massive MIMO and beamforming such a process is handled far more smartly and efficiently, so data speeds and latency will be far more uniform across the network.

What does this all mean? Perhaps the best way of getting a sense of this is to discuss what we can’t do today which 5G will enable. Today’s wireless cellular networks are not capable of transmitting enough data to transmit super high resolution

First and foremost, if we want cities to continue to grow at the rate they are growing then 5G is necessary simply to be able to continue to provide mobile data at the service level already expected by today’s urban citizens. Saturation of radio frequency spectrums is not a new challenge. Many already experience significant degradation during busy periods in densely populated areas, and as mobile data services become more critical to our day-to-day experience (think mobile payments, health monitoring, navigation, communication…), our tolerance for these slow downs will inevitably decrease. 5G is, if nothing else, the technical evolution necessary to exploit a broader range of radio frequencies for data transmission, and in an age of urban densification could be seen as a necessary evolution rather than an discretionary revolution.

The increased reliability and lower latency of 5G networks is a key enabler for the rise of autonomous machines in our cities, specifically cars and other autonomous vehicles. 5G will provide the medium through which autonomous vehicles can communicate, massively mitigating the safety risk implicit in the current model of uncollaborative autonomous vehicles.

5G is often mentioned in the same breath as the internet of things, or IoT, and it is this relationship which will enable a broad range of previously unfeasible solutions which may transform our cities. CCTV infrastructure is likely to become much more widespread and reliable as cameras will be able to communicate in realtime. For better or for worse this, along with the rise of much more capable AI, will likely give rise to smart networks of surveillance devices, including cameras, microphones and perhaps even more invasive sensing equipment, all able to communicate and thus collaborate to build a complete picture of individual movements in the urban landscape.

5G is clearly an exciting technology. But as with all technologies which have the potential to revolutionalise economies and society, it is important to ensure the appropriate precautionary measures are in place to safeguard public health and the social impact of the technology. 5G and it’s sister innovations on the bleeding edge, such as AI, must be rolled out within an appropriate regulatory framework to ensure privacy and individual health are given appropriate consideration.


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