Let the 5G games begin.
The Winter Olympics underway in Pyeongchang, South Korea, showcases heated competition among the world’s finest athletes. But these Olympics are also a showcase for technology that will eventually touch all our lives: the emerging next generation of wireless commonly known as 5G, an effort backed by muscular tech from the likes of Intel, Samsung and KT (Korea Telecom).
“We are confident this is the largest 5G deployment,” says Intel chief strategy officer Aicha Evans. “The learning that we will get in terms of the key measurements will be applicable at any 5G deployment worldwide,” including the U.S.
The Olympics should provide an excellent test bed for 5G. It will be cold. There'll be many thousands of attendees all seeking to capture, crunch and share data at the same time. And the companies will be able to measure the strength, stability, consistency, and reliability of the network, ahead of commercializing the technology within a couple of years.
Talk of 5G inevitably invites a discussion around super-fast speeds and near-zero latency on your phone, latency being industry jargon for how quickly the network recognizes that you have requested data and in turn delivers such data to your device.
But 5G isn’t merely about a promise to deliver data speeds of 10 to 100 times what 4G LTE connections are capable. It's going to take awhile before most of you carry such a speed demon in your pocket, anyway. Rather, most nascent 5G deployments and trials have focused on fixed wireless solutions where data are transmitted from one stationary point to another. Think of it as an alternative to broadband in the home and elsewhere.
Mass adoption will take time as technical standards are hammered out and the infrastructure completed, but the ultimate expectation is that 5G will affect everything from self-driving cars and the so-called Internet of Things (i.e. Web-connected devices like refrigerators) to virtual reality, remote medicine and smart cities.
“Last year was about trials and understanding the performance of 5G in different conditions. And this year we’re really transitioning towards deployment and why 5G matters to people, consumers and businesses,” says Alok Shah, vice president of networks and business development at Samsung Electronics America.
One way tech companies want to use 5G: to change the way viewers watch sports, whether they're inside a stadium or miles away watching in virtual reality.
This year's Winter Olympics, coming as the major carriers plot out their next 5G moves, provides a testing ground for some of the possible uses — and vulnerabilities. They'll provide live virtual-reality views of events via cameras alongside slopes and rinks. The 5G connection should allow the data to move quickly enough to create an immersive experience; at a slower speed, users might opt to ditch the goggles and watch TV.
Intel and KT will let spectators get a real flavor of the action over 5G via interactive “time-sliced” views of certain events, in which multiple cameras are strategically placed around a venue. Watchers of the figure skating in the Gangneung Ice Arena can, via tablets provided by the KT pavilion, summon real-time 360-views of a skater, with augmented-reality biometric (blood pressure, heart rate etc.) statistics and other data layered on top. Forty different camera angles from each of 100 cameras installed around the arena will be available.
“If you think about how much data all those high-resolution cameras will be generating in a venue, you could see why it would make sense for 5G to be part of that,” Samsung’s Shah says.
Cameras placed on a skier will let you experience what it is like to be that very athlete out there on the course.
“In many of these cases, the content that the person would have the ability to view is only achievable through 5G,” Shah says. “It’s not that they’re going to be getting faster speeds to their phone, it’s that the ability to visualize what’s happening on the skating rink or bobsled track — to capture that data or that video — is just not possible in a pre-5G world.”
As it happens, 5G has also become something of a political football in the U.S., with a recent leaked memo suggesting that the Trump administration was considering building its own 5G network, an effort met with fierce resistance by the U.S. telecom industry.
In the states, industry rivals such as Verizon and AT&T are engaged in their own race for 5G supremacy.
Far away from any such debates in South Korea, we’re about to find out if 5G tech is ready to earn a medal. Intel's Evans for one thinks so: "We have more than crossed the finish line."