Every 10 years or so new and improved standards of wireless cellular networks are released. This has been going on since 1G systems were first introduced in the early eighties. Of course, Zimbabwe joined this bandwagon a bit later with Strive Masiyiwa having to fight his legendary battles against bureaucrats and a government that was intent on tangling him in red tape and obscure laws and regulations.
Nowadays we expect our mobile phones to do so much more than make calls and send texts. Every year increasing amounts of computing power is put into these devices to the extent that some now have capabilities which rival those of desktop and notebook computers. They consequently need to communicate at increasingly higher speeds via networks. It, therefore, means that every new generation of cellular standards has much higher data speeds than the one before it.
The fifth-generation standard’s deployment began last year (2019). It offers different speeds depending on the radio wavelengths used with the fastest being able to download a movie in under a second and the slowest having speeds comparable to those of advanced LTE (4G) systems.
While such data speeds are godsends on cellular networks, they have already been surpassed by physical networks such as optic fibre ones. However, in Zimbabwe (and Africa in general), wireless telecommunication technologies have historically seen far wider deployment and adoption than physical ones. A good example is the delivery via satellite of digital television instead of cable like is the norm in most developed countries.
In a country where we know that wireless networks will almost always triumph against their physical counterparts, we can only eagerly await and speculate on the kind of impact that these higher data speeds will have on our society through their effect on computing applications such as e-commerce, multimedia distribution and communication.
The death of broadcast television in the country
Right now in America, online streaming services like Netflix are giving traditional broadcasters such headaches that growing numbers of them are launching their own streaming services in order to future proof themselves. As faster and more affordable internet becomes available to more Zimbabweans we will follow this international trend. Kwese iFlix, Econet’s bid to salvage something from the wreckage of their Kwese satellite television service is a harbinger of things to come. While the service may have failed to catch on this time around, in the future they will be dozens of them, a lot of them for free, most probably offering pirated content. The media and broadcasting industries will be forced to adapt or collapse. Governments will be forced to modernize their laws. If they currently think social media is problematic, imagine a world in which virtually anyone can launch a TV news channel.
VoIP will dominate
The voice and video calling features of the popular instant messaging app Whatsapp were greeted with excitement which quickly turned into disgust and disappointment as Zimbabweans discovered that not only were the local networks unable to handle even the data rates but they were rumours that some of the operators themselves were deliberately handicapping our connections. This practice of disabling over the top services will not age well. In time VoIP will be the dominant means of voice and video communication and our operators will be forced to bill them like normal internet data instead of the current situation where phone calls are treated and charged as a premium service. Calling someone on the opposite side of the world will cost the same as calling someone across the living room.
More devices will connect to the internet
Connections to cellular networks will not be limited to phones. The Internet of Things (IoT) is more than just a promise of toasters and refrigerators that can go online. While the idea of a refrigerator that can restock itself is certainly interesting (and also terrifying: our fridges are not usually empty because we are too lazy to go shopping), the most important IoT devices will not be consumer electronics but will be more mundane and out of sight. Since 5G has the capability to accommodate around a million devices per square kilometre (compared to 4G’s 100 000), we might be heading towards a future where we will not need to report faulty public lighting, traffic lights e.t.c as it will be possible for the relevant authorities to monitor and be in constant communication with each and every one of these machines.
We will reduce the strain on our devices
We expect our portable computing devices (smartphones, tablets and laptops) to compress more capabilities into even smaller volumes with every iteration. We want our devices to have more storage space, faster processors and so on. In recent years the internet has popularized cloud computing which moves most of these resource requirements to remote servers. Services like DropBox allow us to have smaller storage on our devices, while those like Office 360 and Google Docs allow us to create and edit documents without the need of installing a word processor or any other office programs.
Google took this concept to its ultimate extreme with the introduction of its Chrome books. These are computers which only use programs which are accessed via the browser and internet, from the simplest like calculators to the more complicated like video editors.
Fifth-generation cellular technology will certainly make the world a bit more interesting. Each of these developments will bring with it business opportunities and extend the range of possibilities for innovation from local entrepreneurs.