As the 3GPP standardization body continues its work towards the specification of the fifth generation (5G) of cellular systems, it is instructive to take a look at the current coverage map for the previous generations. As of the end of 2016, according to the map above, a number of countries, including Ukraine, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria and Libya, had only 3G coverage; while others, such as Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Eritrea were only served by 2G (GSM) operators. Will 5G deepen the chasm between straggling economies and more technologically advanced nations, or will it instead provide shared benefits across the board?
The argument for the first scenario is clear: 5G is mostly envisaged as a platform to connect things, such as vehicles, robots and appliances, hence catering to vertical markets but neglecting the more basic needs of countries with limited broadband connectivity. The second, more optimistic, scenario is instead backed by the idea that “developing” countries could leapfrog previous “Gs” by leveraging novel architectures based on technologies such as wireless backhauling, small-cells and energy harvesting. This would allow them to benefit from the 5G-enabled connectivity among things for applications as diverse as smart transportation systems, e-health (e.g., remote surgery), remote learning and sensor networks for water management and agriculture.
It was suggested that, in addition to the three basic services currently defined for 5G, namely massive Machine Type Communication, enhanced Mobile Broadband, and Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication, an Ultra Low Cost Broadband service should be made part of the standard. Apart from isolated efforts by companies, such as Google X’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Aquila project, this laudable idea seems to have been mostly forgotten as of late, although the “frugal 5G” concept recently announced by the IEEE appears to be finally moving in this direction.