If you believe all you read about 5G technology, it will deliver unprecedented, jaw-dropping speed. YouTube videos will load in a flash, entire seasons of TV download in seconds. But really, beyond the marketing hype, will 5G change the way we live our lives?
In its broadest definition, 5G stands for fifth-generation cellular wireless. It’s the successor to 3G and 4G which offered access to something cable connections had created years before: an internet built for wireless broadband.
Carriers are beginning to roll out 5G data plans offering free 5G access on existing unlimited plans to offering it at a monthly premium. All of which are, of course, designed to entice you to sign on to new plans.
To find out more about the promise of 5G and what we can expect, I talked at length with Joy Tan, SVP, Public Affairs of Huawei USA. Huawei is one of the pioneers of 5G technology and largely responsible for its global commercialization. These are edited highlights from an interview I conducted with Joy for our podcast “Expert Opinion” in June 2020.
Alan: Joy, thank you for joining us on Expert Opinion. For the benefit of people who may not know what Huawei does in its broadest sense, can you give us a little background on the company?
Joy: Alan, thank you for having me. I think most people know Huawei. We have been in the news recently. Huawei is a telecommunications equipment provider and we also manufacturer smart devices as well. So, for 2019, Huawei’s global revenue was $123 billion. So, we’re one of the largest ICT companies in the world. Right now, we operate in 170 countries. We have 194,000 employees worldwide. So, it’s a huge company and in the US we’re less known as in other countries. Actually, if you go to Europe, Spain, or actually South America, you’d see Huawei ads everywhere.
Alan: There’s a lot of talk about the promise of 5G technology. As one of the pioneers in and responsible for the commercialization of much of the technology, what is Huawei’s position on 5G?
Joy: Huawei is one of the leaders in 5G solutions. We started investing in 5G research and R & D in 2009. So, in 2019 we had a lot of commercial contracts. Huawei is deploying 5G solutions with most other operators around the world. And I think from a solution perspective, we’re probably 12 to 18 months ahead of our competitors.
Alan: Given that much of the world is still in the grip of this coronavirus pandemic and many people are working remotely and may continue to do so into the long-term. A reliable network is becoming increasingly critical to global commerce. Can you tell us the significance of 5G and what difference it will make?
Joy: Yes, so maybe just a little background on 5G. 5G is the fifth generation of mobile broadband that will eventually replace the 4G LTE connection. So, there are several very important parameters for 5G technology. The first one is the speed. So, based on IMT-2020 Standard, the minimum requirement for 5G download speeds is 20 gigabit per second, for uplink it is 10 gigabit per second. So, this is about a hundred times faster than 4G. So, for example, when you download a two-hour HD movie, it will take only several seconds with 5G technology versus seven minutes under 4G. Of course, you know the actual user’s download speeds will depend on a number of factors, including the location and the network traffic.
The second important parameter is the latency, which measures the responsiveness of the network. The lower the latency, the better. The latency for 4G network is about 50 milliseconds; 5G will get you one millisecond. So, that’s a 50 times improvement. So, this will enable a lot of high precision industrial applications like remote surgery, autonomous driving. And the last aspect of 5G is the number of connections. So 5G will allow one million connected devices per square kilometer, essentially unlimited, everything can be connected. So those will truly enable IoT.
Alan: Why is this so important?
Joy: Because consumers will have all this great speed and the number of connections and you will get a much better mobile experience. You’ll be able to stream Disney or Netflix shows seamlessly on your device whenever and wherever you want to. So 5G will make AR, VR, 3D holograms more widely available and 5G will transform all industries as well. So that’s why we often say that 5G will usher in the fourth industrial revolution and change the entire economy. We’re estimating by 2035, 5G will enable about $12.3 trillion of global economic output and support more than 20 million jobs worldwide. So that’s why 5G is a very important technology.
Alan: Those are quite profound implications. So, it’s not just a faster bandwidth, it actually has some transformational implications for business and the way people work. You mentioned remote surgery and autonomous driving; how will it impact other businesses? How will it change them? Can you give us some more examples?
Joy: Yes, sure. So, for the business world, 5G is a real game changer. It will help all vertical industries to improve efficiencies, lower costs, and create a better experience. For example, the ultra-reliable, low latency component of 5G will fundamentally change healthcare. You expect to see improvements in telemedicine, physical therapy via AR, precision surgery and even remote surgery. So, let me give you some examples. In the recent fight against COVID-19 in China, 5G helped save many lives. The doctors can actually read the X-rays remotely. So, you can do remote diagnosis and remote treatment. And these doctors don’t have to be in the epicenter to make treatment. And also, 5G allowed a temperature monitoring system to be quickly set up in China, especially in airports and train stations. So, when people started to return to work, this was very important because 5G has the capacity to connect many different devices at high definition. So, this solution is available. 4G will not be able to provide that.
I’ll give you another example in a traditional industry: Huawei has been working with a mining company in inner Mongolia, in China. We all know the mining industry has been traditionally facing challenges in safety, efficiency and cost for many, many years. Because of the dangerous working environment, trucks in and out of this mine can only drive about six miles an hour. So, we worked with China Mobile to develop or deploy driverless truck solutions using 5G. So now the trucks can drive up to 22 miles an hour. So, three times, almost four times the improvement on efficiency. And more importantly, people are no longer exposed to the dangerous working environment. These are just very impressive use cases and we’ll see the expansion of by 5G solutions in essentially every industry, and we’re just at the beginning.
Alan: People tend to think of 5G as just another upgrade of wireless technology with faster speed for downloading things on their phones, etc. But this is transformational, what you’ve just talked about. It means business will change; it will mean advances in certain areas that are quite profound for the way people live. Thinking about an individual’s life, remote workers for example, we’re all now on Zoom, participating in conference calls and meetings. How would that change?
Joy: 5G will give users immersive online experiences in gaming, entertainment, and other interactive applications. Let me give you some examples. Because 5G has verified speed you can really do things that you couldn’t do before. We launched the commercial network in Switzerland. Now the speeds can be up to one gigabit per second. So, you know, many Europeans like to spend their holidays skiing in Switzerland, and I love to ski there, too. Now when you’re skiing you can actually livestream high definition video of the ski slope in front of you to your friends and family and show them the best slopes in the world, crystal clear. These are all real-time and high definition. That’s just absolutely amazing.
And of course, with us working all from home, there’s a lot of requirements for connectivity, for speed. And I think with 5G we’ll see better experiences for all of us.
Alan: Here in the US we see the ads from the carriers making bold promises, but I don’t think many people are quite clear about when it will actually be available. When can we expect 5G here in the United States?
Joy: Well, let me talk a little bit about the status of 5G deployment around the world and then I will get into the US. So, Verizon and LG U+ in South Korea launched 5G about the same time at the end of 2018. By the end of 2019, more than 60 operators around the launched 5G solutions. And so, by the end of last year, we already had 10 million individual users. And as of today, more than 73 operators in 41 countries have launched 5G. And we’re estimating by the end of this year there will be 250 million individual 5G users in many countries, and offered by about 130 of different operators around the world.
Alan: Huawei has been in the news for reasons other than 5G. People may have read about the company and concerns about security issues with it being Chinese-owned. What is your position on that?
Joy: Well, Huawei has been in the telecom business for 30 years and we offer it in 170 countries. We support about one-third of the world’s population, and we never had a single incident that is related to cybersecurity. All our operators trust Huawei. If you go to Europe, Latin America, we’ve been in these networks for quite a long time. In the US, we serve the rural operators like Montana, East Oregon. We served these operator teams maybe 10, 15 years ago. And we never had any cybersecurity incident with these operators either. So, this is really not about a cybersecurity issue. We hope that the government will have a comprehensive cybersecurity resolution for strategy. If they want to test our equipment, we’re very open, we’re very open to have this kind of third-party testing. We did that in the UK, in Canada and in Germany. So, a third party will come in to test our equipment before they go into the operator’s network. We welcome that solution as well.
Alan: Thank you for that clarification, Joy. Just moving onto a few final questions. The future of 5G, Huawei’s leadership position, the vision for the future in terms of networking communications? Where is Huawei moving to? What does it see in the future?
Joy: That’s a very good question because we’re experiencing a fast deployment in the telecom in the ICT industry. It’s just amazing how fast we see different technologies coming up, and especially with cloud and artificial intelligence. And with 5G, we estimate in five years there will be 6.5 million 5G base stations around the world serving 2.8 billion users. That’s about one third of the world’s population. So, we think in five years, one third of the world will be covered by 5G. And right now, most of the concerns of the operators are focusing on how to generate revenue with 5G in the next several years. So 5G is a new technology. They have to invest a lot to have the infrastructure. When they have the infrastructure, how do they have business models and revenue streams, new revenue streams? So that’s what we have been working on is really to help operators to deploy large-scale 5G solutions and help them generate new revenue from different applications.
Regarding the telecom network, we think the future network will be an intelligent network. So, this intelligent network will be very quick to deploy and they will operate with very high efficiency and with high performance. We envisioned them to become autonomous in 10 to 15 years’ timeframe.
Alan: What’s the long-term vision for the evolution of telecommunications?
Joy: Before 2019, the carrier operators were at the level one stage. They had to use tools to process simple repeated action, and next year the telecom networks will get you to level two, which is part of the maintenance work can be done by software without people making any decisions. And fast forward to 2030, 10 years from now, we think that the network will go from level two to level three. So, the software with massive AI usage in the network can finish full tasks even under different and changing environments. And after that the network will go to level four or level five which is highly autonomous or full autonomous. So artificial intelligence software will do most of the work, anticipating the changes and adjust the traffic and provide on-demand service applications to the users. So that’s how we see the telecommunication evolving. And of course, that’s a very long-term target, long-term vision, but we think the industry is actually working towards that direction.