5G, the war on cash and big brother

Don Sambandaraksa
Vision 2017

Realization of 5G, the war on cash and a move by states towards a surveillance society are just some of the issues that will come to a head in 2017.

5G expectations and reality 

There is something of a disconnect when talking about 5G with the techno-literate compared to the general public. For the latter, 5G is all about more speed and cheaper access. But it will be the other aspects of 5G that will be game changing. We can go fast, we can go dense or we can go ultra-low latency, just not all at the same time. 

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5G is all about software defined radio and a choice of parameters. Huawei has put out a white paper calculating that based on 40 connected things per household, a narrowband IOT cell site would need to cover 50,000 smart devices each. 

The other side of 5G would be the smart connected road. While today’s first-generation autonomous vehicles are about putting more sensors and intelligence into the car, the future will be all about driving the car from the data center, with eyes and ears not just on the vehicle, but incorporating all traffic sensors and cameras on the roads as well. This would represent intelligent transport systems rather than intelligent cars.

At 120KPH, 1ms of latency translates into 3 cm of travel. Assuming the same tiny amounts of data, it has been calculated that getting down to 1ms of latency, would require a huge 40-MHz carrier. Even then, capacity would be only 24 cars per cell site at the latency and reliability criteria needed. 

The industry would therefore need 5 million new macro sites along the roads to enable 400 million cars to drive themselves, making these smart wireless roads a huge opportunity for the telco going forward. 

Telcos’ role in fintech 

Elsewhere 2016 was the year of fintech and every operator, bank and government seems to have doubled down on its vision of the cashless society. Next year the war on cash will step up a notch and a shakedown will happen. Will it be the government-approved versions of the mobile wallet that will win? Will banks get their act together and embrace openness and interoperability? Or will it be telcos with their strong relationship to the user that will prevail? Or it may well be that all of the above ends up crushed under the juggernaut that is Alipay.  

The joker in the fintech question is crypto currency Bitcoin. All banks, telcos and indeed everyone in the traditional world is constrained by KYC and anti-money laundering rules. Bitcoin is not. With 2017 shaping up to be the year of the cashless society, the question is whether it will be one where every transaction is monitored by big brother, or will enough people will realize that this is a war on cash and freedom and reject it? 

Free speech under threat

One worrying trend to look out for in 2017 is the crushing of free speech through cyber crime laws. The rise of the internet as the main communications medium of the citizenry has given every country an excuse to revisit their existing defamation and criminal codes and update them in light of the internet. A common trend is that the need for expediency in gathering evidence has led to the reduction or outright removal of judicial oversight.

  In March 2016, Cambodia passed a new telecoms law that allows for arbitrary surveillance, destruction of evidence before trials and even seizure of telecom assets under the name of national security. In 2017, Thailand will enact a new set of digital economy laws that will centralize power in the hands the executive branch, criminalize mere possession of defamatory images and hold telcos responsible for defamatory acts of their subscribers unless they can prove their innocence.

Telcos will have to comply with these laws. The question is whether the western players will choose not to and sell out to other investors who are more comfortable dealing with such regimes. Time will tell.

This article was first appeared in Telecom Asia Vision 2017 Supplement 

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