5G, Open Source And EdTech: Learning In The Age Of 100 Times Faster Internet

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Advocates and sales forces focused on government procurement are keen on convincing the public that speed is the indisputable advantage of 5G, the fifth generation of mobile internet technology. But while everyone would be happier with faster upload and download speeds, there are other advantages many would find as desirable, if not more. Latency, concurrency and even carbon footprint are benefits worth understanding, if not promoting actively.

The same goes for learning technologies, Open EdTech especially. Thanks to the controversies involving a certain network technologies company from China and the US, a more substantive debate touched on otherwise fringe issues: Firmware, cybersecurity, trade and economic implications. On the education side, the potential is vast and bright. Opportunities for awareness, education and training are manifold.

So what’s the deal with an extra ‘G’

It is, admittedly, a bit arbitrary to set a difference between 4G and 5G. Technological progress is ongoing and delivered on a constant basis. We can, however, understand 5G as the sum of a series of milestones, some more impressive than others, some more specific and more closely related to basic research than others. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is the final judge in determining which technologies belong to which generation.

But for all the obvious (and the not-so) benefits of 5G in education and as a whole, key issues of ownership and agency remain. Without going too further into the weeds, it does seem striking that a single company has enough market power to imply that its absence could compromise a nation’s 5G development roadmap, especially in a market-based economy. There are too many variables involved, but a key element is the firmware question. In very general terms, government procurement contracts include service provision over the long run, even decades. But what happens afterwards? History is full of dead-locked contracts where governments are captive to holders of intellectual property, likely forever.

Open Source deserves a seat at the table, something in most cases impossible without awareness and education.

The technical breakdown

  • Yes, Speed. Average comparisons put 5G between 6 and 10 times the general and maximum speed of 4G today. This also includes mobile networks, whose 1000× increase could dealt the final blow to Ethernet ports.
  • Bandwidth, Frequency, Density. Related to the above but emphasizing the reduced initial lag and the ability of a given device to establish connections with a lot more simultaneous devices.
  • Latency: It amounts to the end of congestion on the information highways. Average response between devices (including servers) would fall below 10 milliseconds.
  • Concurrency: At a given node, modem or hotspot, the number of devices that can seamlessly connect (and remain connected) increases an order of magnitude.
  • Landscape summary: Computers, tablets and phones, along with cars, smart appliances, IoT devices and VR headsets for utility or leisure, all interconnected and able to talk to one another in real time, most sporting high-res video recording capability with embedded real-time visual recognition feeding algorithms of complexity far exceeding the comprehension of any one human.

5G does not come with a few new or renewed concerns:

  • Storage and processing demand: The specialized media is undecided on whether the cost of hard drives can continue their rise, as part of a broader disagreement on whether Moore’s law has finally been broken. In a world connected in unprecedented ways, will our devices require less storage? Or will being able to download files in dimensions of unforeseeable quality, applications, even entire sections of cutting-edge neural networks and other machine learning systems create a hardware bottleneck?
  • Cybersecurity: The current cat-and-mouse game, on steroids. Firewalls, encryption algorithms and similar solutions will face a heightened level of unprecedented dynamics.
  • Connectivity gap: On par with most human achievements, some will soon become accustomed to breakthroughs in “edge computing” that were unthinkable a few years ago, while hundreds of millions still don’t own a device or are familiar with the concept (and threats) of a digital identity.
  • Even more buzzwords. Some of my favorites include “Internet of Context” and “Smart Factories.” (Feel free to “Internet of” and “Smart” pile on.)

5G, world savior

(Or barring a sociopolitical revolution on a global scale, the next best thing.)

Estimates put 5G’s energy efficiency at up to 90% of current 4G, bit-to-bit transferred. It will increase battery lives, likely contributing to saving some actual lives. The effects can compound, especially if coupled with a clearer understanding of energy consumption per device, as systems could allocate processing tasks where it is more efficient to do so instantly.

In addition, it can be argued that setting up 5G infrastructure would be more cost effective than 4G, with a possible benefit for places where no network had been set up before. Fewer towers (if not 100% satellite-based deployment), spread further apart will allow more devices to connect faster, consuming less electricity. They are also expected to be easier and cheaper to install and maintain.

A final element into the mix is the rise of AI and smart algorithms, whose development and prominence only stand to benefit in a 5G era. From bread-and-butter network management, to their flourishing as mobility, surveillance and carbon emissions controller, this new era will empower the technology further as it sharpens its ability to guide us into more desirable outcomes from our technological use.

5G for Open EdTech, or EdTech for Open 5G?

But this puts us back to the nagging issue of firmware. Who will own the algorithms running the public infrastructure? If they involve AI taking care of network traffic (or just real traffic), who will own the learning? This is a complicated question even at the heart of the Open Source community. It poses a dilemma with ethical undertones: If open source algorithms improve thanks to private user data, how can they remain useful to everyone? It would largely depend on the majority of users finding a comfortable mechanism of use-based algorithm feedback.

Which in turns, places the question squarely on education and EdTech. It is, in fact, a series of questions:

  • How should the education community approach 5G as an issue and as a subject matter?
  • What is necessary for Open EdTech advocates to vouch for the development of global and local 5G infrastructure?

Things you can do

  • Discuss 5G with your peers. As an educator, introduce the subject in your learning. As we have hope to illustrate, 5G has implications for a broad variety of disciplines.
  • Encourage fact-based, active standings on digital network infrastructure procurement among the citizenship.
  • Stay on top of the news. (Sign up for our Open 5G Pulse.)
  • And of course, get ready to enjoy an unprecedented reduction in lag!

One Response

  1. Best friends,

    Your article about 5G explains in clear terms the various features and claims of 5G as promoted by the industry. However, I have some doubts:

    1 use case – Yes, I understand that there is a need for more internet capacity, because the number of users worldwide and the number of applications is constantly increasing. My point is that 5G is a communication mode between a mobile device and the closest antenna. From that antenna it is the regular internet. I understand that the regular internet constantly needs more capacity. But do you need this growing capacity on your mobile device? Is it really urgent for you that your mobile device can handle 400 hours of video every 24 hours while you are on the move?
    2. buildings – 5G requires higher frequencies for larger data flows. These higher frequencies have the disadvantage that they are less suitable for penetrating buildings. The providers solve this problem by using a frequency cocktail of higher and lower frequencies. Let us assume that they manage to switch smoothly between these frequencies. In that case you will receive signals both inside and outside buildings. That is good for your user experience. However, the data rate will vary enormously as soon as you enter a building. Very annoying, it seems.
    3. cross-border – The cocktail of frequencies is based on which frequencies are available at cheap rates. That is why it will differ from country to country. The use of your 5G device when crossing boundaries can therefore be limited.
    4. antennas – The high frequencies require antennas every 250 meters. For good coverage, the city like Amsterdam (not really big, less than 1 million people) needs 10,000 5G antennas. Suppose there are three competing providers due to market forces, this implies 30,000 antennas only for Amsterdam. Do you think, apart from the huge investment (ultimately paid by the customers), the ugliness of so many antennas, the concerns of citizens groups about radiation, that the providers will one day realize coverage throughout the country?
    5. protect investments – When the stereo gramophone record was invented, users with a mono record player could play it in mono; their previous investment was not lost. The same thing happened with the black and white TVs, when the channels started broadcasting in color. With 5G 3G expires (those frequencies are after all needed for 5G) and users pay not only for the high service costs, but also for new mobile devices.
    6. internet-of-things – The internet of things would not be possible without 5G. It is indeed clear that we want to connect more and more “things” with computers and with each other. But not all of those “things” are mobile, you do not always need internet for interconnections, and to the extent that this is the case, it does not always require a lot of data and high speed. Maybe it is useful for a caretaker to know that the trash bin is full in a room, but does he / she need video and does it have to go through the internet? You may find it useful to use an app to switch on or off lighting in your building, but does that have to be done through the website of a supplier on the other side of the world? This can be much simpler, safer and cheaper via your own WiFi. BTW, some 5G providers claim that you no longer need your WiFi. 5G can also take care of your local data communication. That means that you are going to trade in a simple, safe and free solution that technically has been going on for many years for something complex, expensive, unsafe and temporary, because 6G is already under construction.
    7. automated cars – And then your electric and highly automated car. I can imagine that cars in the neighborhood will benefit from each other if they can exchange some data with each other. But what do you think is safer, faster, more reliable and cheaper: a simple peer-to-peer communication mode or a 5G connection between two providers, each with their own antenna and every 250 m also a different one?

    Dear friends, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals consist of 169 very ambitious goals for all countries for the year 2030. Many goals are highly dependent on information and communication technology. There are trillions of dollars in new challenges and opportunities. Also for our providers. Therefore, don’t waste time and effort on a monster like 5G, but make a contribution to what the world really needs.

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