The countries surrounding the Baltic Sea are renowned for their constant pushes for innovation. From Estonia’s “Government-as-a-service” to Finland and Latvia having some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world, these are nations unafraid to try new ideas. These pushes include the next generation of mobile communication standards, with the first commercial 5G networks launched in Tampere (Finland) and Tallinn (Estonia), years ahead of many other countries.
5G is the fifth generation of the mobile communication standards we are currently using. It aims to continue the trends of increased speed and bandwidth, but also to introduce new features to complement our increasingly inter-connected world. These include reduced latency, lower power consumption, and less interference from areas with a high density of devices. 5G’s aim is not to improve your mobile phone experience, but to better support the needs of all connected devices and reduce their reliance on outdated and unsuited communication technologies. It aims to help modern businesses operate in a connected ecosystem no matter where they are in the world (that has 5G). It aims to be the backbone that uses cases such as autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, and smart cities need to operate optimally.
5gTechritory in Riga (Latvia) brought together industry, government, and technology leaders to discuss progress and use cases for 5G in an attempt to push progress and awareness further. I took the opportunity to interview some of these leaders and attend sessions to discover the future of 5G in the Baltics, Europe, and globally.
One of the key announcements from the event for the Baltic region was the “Baltic Corridor,” a cross-border 5G project that joins a handful of others around Europe to allow for self-driving vehicle testing. I spoke with Rene Tammist, the Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology, Estonia, who mentioned that many European nations have collaborated on infrastructure projects before. He felt that as the project involves less physical infrastructure, and thus cost, that its success is likely.
In a follow-up question, but not directly related to 5G, Rene mentioned that Estonia wants to ensure that all its population can participate in a digitized nation. Its steps involve education programs (and participation rates are high) by making processes as simple as possible and opening all processes to collaboration. In the future, Estonia plans to open source its policies for comment and collaboration. How this would work remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating idea.
At a local government level, I spoke with Aivar Riisalu, deputy mayor of Tallinn (Estonia), about what 5G already means for his city and its future. From a background as a Major in the Estonian army to a singer in a popular band, Meie Mees, Aivar understands how technology can unite people when implemented correctly. As well as the site of the first 5G-enabled call, Tallinn is trialing numerous civic engagement projects that 5G will help improve. From parking fees to voting, the small capital with its historic center is likely to be one of the best-connected cities in the world.
I spoke with Roberto Viola, Director General of DG CONNECT (Directorate General of Communication, Networks, Content, and Technology), the Commission department responsible for developing a single digital market to generate smart, sustainable, and inclusive growth in Europe.
At 5GTechritory, Roberto announced the launch of 5gobservatory.eu, a resource site to track news on 5G in Europe and key markets around the world. He noted that Europeans were responsible for the invention of the original GSM network but lost their way with a slow and piecemeal rollout of 4G. The Commission is taking a different approach with 5G, mandating member states to release 5G bandwidth ranges in 2020 and only requiring operators to apply for permission to install cells above a certain size. This means that operators can install the “microcells” essential for IoT devices with little government involvement. This policy could lead to the coverage needed, but there are concerns of “cowboy” installers, or simply too many cells. Robert also announced a desire to apply a degree rationality with regards to frequency applications and not just allow operators to squeeze as much money as possible out of 5G. Many speakers mentioned the wide and varied positive use cases of 5G and their desire to see these realized, but it remains to be seen what that means in reality.
Investment and Opportunity
Many speakers discussed the subject of investment in Europe and how it lags behind some other areas of the world, with the BRIC nations (especially China) now investing much more in R and D than Europe. Europe trails most in “Total factor productivity” (TFP), growth rates measured by subtracting capital investments. Many feel that greater emphasis on technological R and D will help close this gap. Finland has one of the highest rates of R and D investment and industry collaboration in the world, mostly because the government mandates it, and other European nations seek to replicate this. Still, Europe is a vast mixture of nations, opinions, and priorities, so it’s anyone’s guess if this strategy will result in smart investments and outcomes.
One of the more interesting discussions for me was that of new business models introduced by and for 5G. Ideas such as health insurers covering the cost of autonomous vehicle infrastructure because it reduces injuries. Governments and cities have a crucial role to play in this, with smarter, more connected procurement policies that preference companies with this kind of thinking. Surprisingly for Europe, there were few discussions on the data privacy and security implications of all this data streaming back-and-forth. I couldn’t help but wonder how companies may use the data collected for means we don’t anticipate and what might happen if nefarious people or parties hacked these networks.
Your 5G Future
Full of government officials and industry leaders, 5GTechritory was a slick and professional event, but there were nagging questions in the back of my mind throughout most of it. Presenters repeatedly spoke about business potential, innovative funding models, and grand ideas. And yet, there were few concrete timelines mentioned, and I wondered how many industry partners are keen on innovative collaborations based on good ideas instead of pure profit. Will industry do a good job communicating why 5G is useful to people’s lives, or will its seamless nature mean that most won’t even notice its presence? What are your feelings on the promise of 5G?
You can hear audio versions of two of the interviews conducted in the podcast episode below.