The next big leap in telecommunications, the “5G” standard, is now being tested on the Chinese mainland by China Mobile, AT&T in the US and DoCoMo in Japan. No one is doing anything in Hong Kong about 5G yet and this is a pity. The new 5G standard will be a qualitative leap in speed and technology and not just an incremental improvement over the existing 4G network.
The 5G technology, which will not be rolling out in full until 2020 at the earliest, will dominate the “self-driving cars” and Internet of Things (IoT) which are going to dominate all modern cities, including Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was a pioneer in mobile technology in the 1980s and 1990s when brick-like contraptions called “mobile” phones were common place in Hong Kong when no one on the Chinese mainland or even the US has even heard of mobile phones. In Hong Kong popular culture, they were called “small brother” and in a reference to their popularity among some sections of triads, called “big brother’s small brother”.
Being rare, mobile phones in Hong Kong carried only by tycoons and starlets, signified status. The “Tai Kor” established pecking order by placing the phone on the lunch table with a loud thud whereas poor journalists could not even dream of owning one. Leading mobile phone companies used Hong Kong as a “testing ground” for new models and technologies. That was then but now the action has shifted to the mainland and Hong Kong has been left behind.
Across the border Shenzhen-based ZTE Corp is teaming up with Germany’s telecom-services provider Deutsche Telekom to develop 5G technology and they have launched an innovation lab. It is about time Hong Kong joined this race by inviting or even pressuring the big phone companies of the world to at least do a pilot project on 5G in Hong Kong as early as possible. The mobile-obsessed population of Hong Kong with its dense affluent population will make a good testing ground except that the five private mobile phone companies that struggle to make profit from Hong Kong’s 7 million people do not have the surplus or the technology to do it on their own.
How much better is 5G? The current 4G speed in Hong Kong is about 300 Mbit/s or 300 megabits per second. While the final speed and standards of 5G are not yet settled, it is expected to offer at least 12-fold increase in speed. It may even be more since under laboratory conditions in China and Japan they have even achieved 50-fold increase in speeds. A typical movie in a DVD is about 5 GB, which means that, with a 5G network you can download an entire movie in about one second!
Next step for 5G is for practical field tests and here Hong Kong government can play an “enabler” role.
What is attractive about 5G is not just speed. Other benefits of 5G are low latency and high capacity, which in normal language means 5G network will upload and download fast; you don’t have to wait a few seconds for your video to download, as now you have to with 4G.
Any realistic plan for a city like Hong Kong to have driverless cars in large numbers will have to include a 5G network. This is where Hong Kong, which already has a large number of Tesla electric cars zipping around and which still suffers from air pollution, can lead the way.
Getting a lead on 5G will not only give Hong Kong bragging rights but Hong Kong will be able to direct the standards and protocols of 5G technology from the beginning which will create business and jobs for Hong Kong companies and people.
European Union set the standards for 2G and that is the reason why the earliest mobile phone companies from Europe such as Nokia were able to benefit from those standards and dominate the industry, for almost a decade. Google has set the standard for Android as has Apple and the chipset and service companies from the US are benefitting as a result. China, home to the world’s largest mobile phone company, is now determined to set at least some of the standards for the emerging new technology of 5G. This is a good opportunity for Hong Kong to jump on the 5G bandwagon with the help of the mainland.
The previous generations of Hong Kong “big brothers” led the way with brick-like early mobile phones. The city is now waiting for the next Big Brother to lead the way in 5G.
The author is a former foreign correspondent and a successful entrepreneur in Southeast Asia and India.