The concept of a “network” is one of the past – the new possibilities arising from 5G

The concept of a “network” is one of the past

The provision of 5G is fast approaching. Three major characteristics in comparison with mobile networks of past generations are: “Ultra low latency” which significantly lowers delays in communication data, “broad bandwidth” that allows sending and receiving large data such as 4K and 8K videos, and “multiple-terminal connection” that allows connecting to phones and IoT devices more than ever before.


With such characteristics, the network that we connect to through 5G is bound to show us an entirely new world. Before going into the changes and possibilities that arise from this, I would like to take a brief look back at the history of data communication with a focus on computing. 

From mainframe computers to one per person

In the early days of computing, people used to share one massive computer called a mainframe by using a method called time-sharing. This was about 70 years ago, around 1950. Mainframe computers were about the size of commercial refrigerators in terms of dimensions and weight, but they were no match for current smartphones in terms of performance. 

Thereafter in the latter half of the 1980s, the wave of downsizing from mainframe computers to minicomputers accelerated, and an OS was installed in personal computers for widespread use in offices. 

This is the time at which “one computer per person” was provided in office environments at progressive companies. When I first joined Sony as a new grad in 1987, only one computer was available per department, and I remember sharing the computer with my colleagues. 

The personal computer or PC which started to become widely used with each person having their own, drastically impacted the working style in offices when it became connected to an internal network, and later to the internet. 

Document data and computational data were created in the form of a file, and this was stored at the data center owned and managed by the company, allowing people to access files from there for their work. PCs originally did not have a large storage capacity (memory), so data was stored at a shared data center, which was used as a kind of electronic library. 

A new turn with cloud computing

In the 1990s, the invention and widespread use of web browsers led to the activation of various server applications on the data center server, rather than activating applications on the PC itself. In other words, PCs and data centers/server centers in a way teamed up and their use rapidly accelerated, providing various business applications. 

At this time, computers were still mainly used for business purposes, and there were not many people who owned and used a personal computer. It was a time when high-speed internet connections using fiber-optic communication lines and ADSL were not yet available at home, and only a handful of core users were using the internet via ISDN, an extremely low-speed connection compared with the standards of today. Many people used an analog modem to connect to the internet using an extremely limited bandwidth. 

However, with the birth of the mobile phone network and widespread use of smartphones, individuals began to have computing and storage capabilities that far exceeded those of the early days of mainframe computers.  

With the widespread use of smartphones really taking off, our lives have changed drastically in just 15 years. And things and services that already existed when smartphones were becoming widely used, were made into smartphone applications one after the other. 

Because smartphones were owned by individuals, when there were major incidents or news events, there was massive communication traffic to servers from all over the world. The older data center and server center models were unable to handle the instinctive and sudden communication traffic demand of such users. 

This led to the birth of the Cloud, a computing function with a structure allowing the flexible provision of computational and storage resources. 

Until then, communication traffic and computational needs had to somehow be predicted in a “planned-economy” way, and servers, storage and network bandwidth were procured based on these predictions. However, with the birth of the Cloud, companies that had to provide various internal and external services using the internet or an internal network, were freed from the need to predict the demands for network traffic and computing, which had been extremely difficult task and was lacking in accuracy. The demand prediction issue between relevant parties and decision-makers for budget planning became unnecessary. 

Until now, changes and developments have occurred between servers and client devices (server-client model), and I believe 5G will bring about a completely new relationship between these two. 

The birth of new applications with “edge computing”

5G specifications will make it possible to locate computers as computational resources and storage as storage resources close to the antennas for the mobile network. This means some kind of computer can be set on the edge part that connects to a so-called mobile network device. The computer structure which had been called a server-client model, will become a three layered, server-edge-client model. 

To what extent this edge computer can be placed will differ according to each mobile carrier. Generally speaking, until now, it was necessary to connect to a server within a distant Cloud from client devices such as smartphones and personal computers via an intranet or the internet, and extract data from or activate applications from this server. However, with 5G, edge computers can be used for activation depending on the application. 

By making use of the “broad bandwidth” and “multiple-terminal connection” of the 5G network, and massively bundling together IoT (internet of things) as typified by various sensors, and further by making use of 5G’s “ultra low latency,” I expect completely new applications to be developed.  

If we take it one step further, I predict that just the part between edge computers and client devices can be used as “local 5G,” independent of the public mobile network. In other words, this will lead to the birth of a new network topology (network connection method), where “local 5G” networks connect with each other within buildings such as schools, companies, government offices and warehouses, or within facilities such as parks, amusement parks, theaters and sports stadiums, as well as connecting directly to the company’s network. 

In “local 5G” networks, it becomes possible to have applications without processed data flowing into the open internet. This feature can be utilized to realize usages that are sensitive to privacy and exchange confidential company information, by using wireless communication. Not only simplifying security related operations, but also analyses that incorporate user photos and voice data that could not be realized before due to sensitivity and privacy issues, will also become possible. The surveillance of a region and the interiors of buildings will also become easier to realize.

The possibilities of the “ultra low latency,” “broad bandwidth,” and “multiple-terminal connection” of 5G.

What “ultra low latency,” or a short delay means is that “the connecting-end will feel much closer.” “Broad bandwidth” will mean that the connecting-end will look real. And “multiple-terminal connection” means that through the 5G network, an almost limitless amount of input/output signal transactions will become possible, and you will be overcome with a sense of feeling that the connected-end via the internet will seem like it exists right next to you. 

The 4G that we have been using until now left us with the consciousness that it was a “network” that you connect and disconnect with. However, with 5G, the consciousness of a “network” will likely disappear in the relationship between people and content. And this also means new content will emerge. 

For example, if you take advantage of the “ultra low latency” and “broad bandwidth” of 5G, you can constantly connect your room with the room of your elderly parents who live far away, to create a new world of “remotely living together.” Services to monitor and analyze your parents’ health by computer via a sensor will also become possible. 

By thoroughly incorporating the 5G characteristics of “ultra low latency,” “broad bandwidth,” and “multiple-terminal connection,” 5G is certain to show us a completely new world that resembles a sci-fi film in which we virtually live in a computing space. 

※This article was published in "Forbes JAPAN posted on March 5, 2020". This article has been licensed by Forbes Japan. Copying or reprinting without permission is prohibited.

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