For tech enthusiast Mohammed Karim, downloading 10 of his favourite Hollywood movies in less than two minutes, at the startling speed of up to 870.2 megabits per second, was an eye-opener.
Using fifth-generation cellular wireless connectivity – popularly known as 5G – at Virgin Mobile’s demo area in Dubai Design District recently, Mr Karim was impressed.
“This is hard to digest, but it’s happening before my eyes … no delay, no hiccups and a superb next-level experience. It seems I am part of some mega-budget science fiction film,” he said.
But 5G promises advances more profound that merely downloading a full HD movie in less than 10 seconds, compared to more than 10 minutes on current 4G technology.
"5G is about so much more than just fast download speeds and lower latency [data transfer delays]," Karim Benkirane, managing director at Virgin Mobile UAE, told The National.
“What's really exciting is the sheer number of new digital services that will be enabled by the 5G network that we can't foresee. The internet of Things [IoT], for example, will make homes smarter and new possibilities will open for customers through enhanced mobile artificial intelligence and virtual reality.”
This network promises an internet speed of up to 1.2 gigabits per second that will gradually evolve to reach 10Gbps, more than 100 times faster than 4G. Additionally, 5G has latency of less than one millisecond compared to 20 milliseconds on a 4G network.
In May, Etisalat - UAE’s biggest telecom operator - became the first service provider in the region to announce the availability of 5G network, supporting smartphones for commercial use. It was soon followed by UAE’s second operator du and Bahraini telco Batelco.
Chafic Traboulsi, head of networks at Swedish technology giant Ericsson in Middle East and Africa, said with global mobile data traffic expected to grow by a factor of eight by the end of 2023, there is a need for a more efficient networks, higher data rates and improved spectrum utilisation – all of which 5G guarantees.
New applications such as high-definition video streaming, virtual and augmented reality, remote medical practise such as surgery using robotics, and industrial manufacturing will require higher bandwidth, greater capacity, security and lower latency, said Mr Traboulsi, adding: “Equipped with these capabilities, 5G will bring new opportunities for people, society and businesses.”
Ericsson, whose operations cover 15 countries across Asia, the Middle East and Africa, has a strategic partnership with Etisalat. The two companies signed an agreement in February to work to expand 5G coverage.
In its latest report, Ericsson has listed 10 industries that will drive growth in revenues from digitalisation through 5G. These include agriculture, manufacturing, energy and utilities, public safety, health care, public transport, media and entertainment, automotive, financial services and retail.
Globally, this growth will equate to a $619 billion (Dh2.27 trillion) revenue opportunity by 2026, said Ericsson.
Currently regional telecom operators are selling only Chinese ZTE 5G smartphones but Huawei and Samsung are expected to roll-out their devices soon.
New cellular network technology usually has a low initial penetration of compatible devices and 5G is likely to be no different. However, by 2020, when more modern third-generation chipsets will be introduced, the uptake of 5G devices is expected to accelerate. A chipset is a small multi-function processor that will go into 5G consumer mobile devices. Qualcomm (Snapdragon), Samsung (Exynos), Huawei (Kirin) and Apple (A-series) are some of the leading manufacturers of flagship chipsets. Almost 1 billion 5G devices for enhanced mobile broadband are predicted to be connected globally by 2023, according to Ericsson.
Jeroen Schlosser, managing director of Equinix at Middle East and North Africa, said with a mobile phone penetration rate rising to 230 phones per 100 people in the UAE in the first quarter of 2018 from a year earlier, the country will be at the forefront of 5G implementation and uptake.
He added that retail and industrial will be the first sectors to take advantage of IoT, a key beneficiary of 5G.
Retail is leveraging IoT to gain valuable insights by evaluating data - related to customers’ purchase histories and visit frequencies to a particular store - coming from different connected devices such as smartphones, wearables and home assistants. Based on the data, retailers introduce new products, marketing campaigns, reduce operational costs and ensure customer satisfaction.
Industry, meanwhile, where systems such as connected turbine engines, power plants and vehicles are becoming prevalent, will use IoT solutions to send inputs and alerts in case of any anomaly at any point of production cycle. It ensures greater efficiencies and safety of overall operations, Mr Schlosser told The National.
There is more to the 5G story than “a simple incremental evolution of radio access networks [RAN] that is one more G and bigger pipes”, said Nicolas Gresser, director of regulatory affairs at Etisalat International.
The RAN technology connects an individual device such as a smartphone or a router with mobile towers through electromagnetic waves. More RAN promises low latency, or data transfer delays, and better connectivity.
“5G brings a whole new ecosystem of technologies beyond the radio network which include virtualisation, artificial intelligence, and edge computing.”
Still in its initial stages of development, edge computing includes processing of data right at its actual source, instead of depending on the cloud hosted at one of the remote data centres. Besides adding more speed, it also minimises the risk of any cyber breach.
These technologies will eventually create a “paradigm shift in the production of telecom services by allowing telcos to centralise the production of digital services” and reach several countries from one platform, Mr Gresser added.
Etisalat is constructing more than 1,000 5G towers in the UAE, providing the infrastructure and network to support all 5G devices launched by global mobile device manufacturers such as ZTE, Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung. It plans to spend Dh4 billion on "digital transformation" and improving the mobile and fibre network this year.
Mr Gresser emphasised that data localisation requirements, where the transfer of data across borders is blocked, should be relaxed in the region to ensure the smooth running of 5G.
“Unlike in other sectors, data from telcos is in many cases restricted ... across geographic borders. This is a major impediment for telcos to achieve cost savings and compete on a level playing field with global digital players,” said Mr Gresser.
Currently, telecom operators in Middle East and North Africa are bound by stringent data localisation requirements related to licences. In many cases, data has to stay locally in the home country.
Countries in the region need to cooperate to enable cross border data transfer that is essential to implement appropriate strategies depending on user feedback and requirements.
“This requires putting a privacy cooperation system in place such as the one that was successfully implemented in Asia,” added Mr Gresser.
In 2017, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation created Cross-Border Privacy Rules (CBPR) to engender trust in the cross-border disclosure of personal information between participating countries.
Saleem Al Balooshi, chief infrastructure officer of Emirates Integrated Telecommunications Company (EITC), commercially known as du, said 5G will open up new revenue streams for industries once it is fully rolled-out.
“Besides connecting people, 5G is connecting global industries, SMEs and entrepreneurs ... creating new avenues of growth and revenue generation. It’s kind of wait-and-watch situation … practical results will be visible in the coming months,” said Mr Balooshi.
EITC's capital expenditure on technology will surge as much as 25 per cent to Dh1.5bn this year as the telecoms operator aims to support 5G connectivity in the UAE, Mr Al Balooshi said.
The largest manufacturer of 5G equipment, Huawei, which has secured nearly 40 5G commercial contracts globally, says 5G offers enormous potential in this region.
"We see immense opportunities coming out of 5G, especially in Middle East. It will lay the foundation of upcoming smart cities and revolutionary technologies in fields like telemedicine and autonomous vehicles," Shenzhen-based Mohamed Madkour, vice president - global wireless network marketing at Huawei, told The National.