First, let’s put the number 50 billion into perspective. If every human being on the planet had three devices each: a smartphone, a tablet PC and a laptop, and connected each device to the internet, that will add up to about 21 billion devices, which will still leave 28 billion devices unaccounted for. Which devices are those?
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a phenomenon where things that were not traditionally connected to the internet, are now being connected.
Things like vehicles, clothing, machinery, furniture, farming equipment and livestock are being connected to the internet, and in exponential numbers.
It is these devices that will account for the vast majority of internet connections in the future.
This huge leap from a billion to 50 billion devices will place a lot of strain on the current mobile networks, which are already reaching their full capacity. What’s more, the IoT devices are entirely reliant on a fast, secure and uninterrupted internet connections to function. There is zero allowance for down time, and if these devices happen to lose connection for even a few seconds, it could spell disaster.
Imagine a self-driving car hurtling along the highway, suddenly losing connection to the internet.
Or a delivery drone, on its way to drop off medicines to a hospital, going off -line.They will be driving blindly.
This is where the new generation of wireless networks, the 5G networks, comes in. 5G stands for the fifth generation of wireless mobile networks, and is a successor to the 4G networks.
5G provides significant advantages over 4G. It is a hundred times faster than 4G, which means that a two-hour movie that takes around six minutes to download on a decent 4G network, will take three-and-a-half seconds on 5G. Added to that, 5G has one fortieth the latency of 4G networks.
This means that, whereas the 4G networks take just under 50 milliseconds to respond to our requests, 5G networks will take just one millisecond. In the real world, this could mean a self-driving car taking a half second less to make a crucial decision.
However, there are some drawbacks for 5G, such as infrastructure requirements.
Rolling out 5G will require a complete infrastructure upgrade on the part of the network operators, which will be costly. Operators will need to recuperate the costs somehow, and the consumer will probably have to foot the bill via higher data rates.
As if South Africa needs more expensive data right now. Data costs are high and out of reach of the majority of the population who, according to studies, cannot afford more than 100 megabytes of data per month. This may be great for WhatsApp and some social media activity, but is not enough for serious applications.
With cheaper data we could make the internet more accessible to all South Africans, but we could also tackle many of the country’s socio-economic problems.
* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.