Should investors believe the hype around 5G?

Steve Sammartino takes an in-depth look at 5G including the evolution of telecommunications, why it’s time to believe the hype, and what prospects it holds for investors.

We are currently on the precipice of a new phase in the internet which will impact the world more than we know. It won’t just be about making information transfer faster, it will fundamentally change the way we interact with the internet.

From this point on, the internet won’t be a thing we go to, use, or call on, it will be a new form of meta-intelligence added to our physical world.

The web will go from being a nervous system which transfers information, to a nodal intelligence system which also makes its own decisions independently from its own inputs and output. And 5G will be the centre piece of this possibility.

But in order to understand where we are going, we first need to be reminded of how we got here. A world built around 5G isn’t so much about faster connections, rather, different kinds of connections.

Web evolution

We can break the evolution of the internet down into three clear phases.

The first phase of the web was all about connecting machines starting in the mid-1960s with the ARPANET at the height of the Cold War.

This was the era of exploring the mere idea that information could be sent from one machine to another. Once that possibility was established, we quickly mobilised to connect every computer system of national and structural importance.

In the first instance, it was driven by the military and backed with data systems emanating from university computer research centres. It then quickly progressed to connecting government information systems, and into the banking sector to facilitate global financial trading systems. This process took almost 40 years.

But by the late 1990s, we could reliably assume that every computer from those in large institutions, to desktops in home offices, were connected to the internet.

All of this was built connecting open slow legacy based analogue national telegraph systems. This was the start, of the start.

The second phase of the internet was all about connecting people. This was when the internet became personal. All of a sudden, we had a permanent connection in our pockets.

In its early phase, it was often referred to as web 2.0 – and the best definition we can give for this era would be that the connections that mattered were those that were powered by the people who populated them.

Search (powered by our links), social (powered by our connections) and conversations, video and blogging (powered by the content we made), and the app economy (powered by the apps we built).

This era extending from 2G to 4G LTE was all about unleashing the cognitive surplus of humanity, and in the process gave rise to a new class of technology firms and billionaires in the process.

So dramatic was this revolution, that we currently have more mobile phone subscriptions in use than toothbrushes globally. Today we have 60 per cent of the global population permanently connected to each other, and the world’s knowledge. This era took about 20 years.

We are now entering the third phase of the web, now, we are connecting things.

Some call it the internet of things (IoT) – but it is much more than just a connection – this is the point where we are adding a kind of life form to formerly inanimate and ‘dumb’ objects. We are adding intelligence to them. Just like we did the phone: we went from dumb phone to smart phone, and now we are going from dumb things to smart things.

In the first instance, you can be sure if it has electricity running through it, it will be connected, but eventually, it will be everything we make – and 5G is about to underpin it.

The bandwidth and speed of 5G will allow us to cheaply and reliably add an ability for ‘things’ to both sense and understand the world around them.

Things will be programmed (a bit like humans are) to understand their inputs and make decisions based on changes in their immediate and global environment. A new ecosystem of intelligent objects.

Things will see, smell, hear, feel, and even taste the world. I like to call it the trillion-sensor economy. Things will become independent economic agents. All of a sudden the world itself, knows what it is.

Do believe the hype

While 4G enabled mobile streaming and live video, 5G will be up to 100 times faster, but it isn’t just about being faster and having more bandwidth.

The key benefit of 5G is it reduces latency. And latency is the missing link between the commercial emergence of a number of technology curve jumps which will change how we live and do business.

For the uninitiated, latency is important because it allows things to be done across the world, for which real-time is required – where it might even be the difference between life and death.

Two examples which quickly jump to mind are autonomous vehicles and the arrival of distance robotic surgery – in these cases, milliseconds matter.

With potential speeds of up to 1 gigbit per second, 5G puts the NBN to shame – which currently has a maximum rate of up to 100 megabits per second and averages between 60-90.

In a wireless 5G world, our cities can start to run themselves in real-time based on sensor feedback, our transport systems can become fully autonomous, virtual and augmented reality will finally become viable without the headache-inducing lag and we can give birth to the global exo-labour and digital twins.

5G isn’t really about faster movie downloads, it’s about new digital possibility – a quasi real-time web.

The elephant in the ground

Yes, the NBN.

While I wouldn’t call it a white elephant, it certainly is a slow one, and one which should’ve been much faster if it didn’t become a political football.

The truth of the problem with the NBN vs 5G is simple – we should never have privatised infrastructure of critical importance. All natural monopolies – such as telecoms infrastructure – should remain in government hands.

It was true when economist John Stuart Mill wrote about it in the 19th century and it is true today – telecoms should be a platform for businesses to compete upon, not something businesses compete to build.

If you thought that the NBN was problematic, then we are about to see another example of why it makes no sense to have competing 5G towers. Regional Australia will once again become second fiddle to cities.

The current mapping we already see of 5G implementation tells the story – full city centricity, ironically occurring during COVID when work from anywhere is finally gathering momentum.

Not only will we have a piecemeal national broadband infrastructure, but we’ll also end up having a further digital divide where regional Australia again gets disadvantaged once more.

Investment implications of 5G

Just like every other infrastructure curve jump, 5G will install new winners who don’t actually build the technology, but benefit from it. From an investment perspective, our job will be to think a few layers deeper than the technology itself.

As cars become autonomous they will probably use more data than the average house – they’ll be rolling lounge rooms, entertainment zones and offices, which are all real business opportunities which are yet to be seized upon.

Drone logistics will become part of the fabric of our skies for which ecosystems will need to be built around both on the ground and in the ‘cloud’.

In essence, the 5G revolution is a localised opportunity where the benefits happen on the geography of the home turf in all countries. If anything, the investing upside is bigger than what we saw in the past two decades as everything became digitised and lined the pockets of a few big tech firms.

What we need to be aware of is that this will happen faster than the previous phase. It always does. Every epoch of technology takes half as long to happen as the previous era.

It will also have a bigger commercial and social impact than what happened before and new money will literally be invented. The only thing we need to do is to love tomorrow more than we loved yesterday.

Originally published August 2020 at Eureka Report, and republished with permission. 

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About Steve Sammartino

Steve SammartinoSteve is Australia’s leading futurist. He’s the author of two books on disruptive technology: The Great Fragmentation and The Lessons School Forgot; both with multiple language translations. He has an incredible ability to make sense of how emerging technology applies to industry. He delivered keynote speeches to over 100,000 people last year.

A media commentator, Steve is a regular on the ABC, the in-house Futurist for 2GB and 3AW and regularly appears on National News. He has featured on the BBC, The Smithsonian Institute, The Discovery Channel, Mashable, Wired, and has had his projects feature in major documentary films.

Steve has an economics background and has worked in Fortune 500 firms Kimberly Clark, Proctor & Gamble, CUB, Kraft, WPP. He launched one of the first ‘Sharing Economy’ startups Rentoid.com, as recognised by Forbes magazine. Steve had a successful exit selling the startup to a public company. He now invests in emerging technologies and advises global corporations on future proof technology strategy.

Steve has a number of technology world firsts and viral videos to his name including building a full-size driveable Lego car from 500,000 pieces which has 10 million views on Youtube and was a global news story.

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