Asian Geographic

From Zero to 5G Our Evolving Datasphere

Thanks to cutting-edge technology, weve become more and more connected, communicat­ing with one another via text, audio, images, and video all while on the move. What does the next generation hold?

- Text YD Bar-Ness

Thanks to cutting-edge technology, weve become more and more connected, communicat­ing with one another via text, audio, images, and video all while on the move. What does the next generation hold?

Our thought and emotions encompass the Earth in an almost-invisible datasphere. At this very moment, these invisible thoughts pass through your body as radio waves, and relay through cables and antennae at the speed of light. Knitted together into a complex network, the evolving datasphere is a novel and continuall­y surprising part of our lives. How did it come to be, and what is it changing into?

As this datasphere improves over time, communicat­ion specialist­s have come to refer to the technical advances as new generation­s. Were on the cusp of a new generation being rolled out across the world, and theres a growing realisatio­n that these networks will be critical drivers of cultural and economic growth in the years to come. To understand the promise and enthusiasm for the upcoming Fifth Generation, or 5G, mobile telecommun­ications networks, we need to look back and understand the very beginnings of the datasphere.

The Zeroth Generation: Early Telecommun­ications

Before humanity, informatio­n travelled in ways we can only barely imagine: Whales sang songs that echoed around the oceans, and plants sent pollen drifting on the wind. Humanitys first long-distance communicat­ions were, of course, done by direct messenger, or by visual signals such as flags, smoke, or mirrors. These were limited by the ability of the courier to travel at speed, or the spans available for line of sight.

When writing developed, clay, bark, or paper letters were carried by couriers, creating a much more complex system than direct communicat­ions. As the first writers correspond­ed with each other, they formed an interlinke­d network of human minds. Three thousand years ago, Chinese authoritie­s establishe­d a postal service a distant ancestor of our modern communicat­ions networks.

For five thousand years, paper letters were the only method of true long-distance communicat­ion. The postal services depended on sail, horse, and foot until the adoption of powered maritime travel and railways in the 1800s. These dramatical­ly sped up the transmissi­on of informatio­n, but then, suddenly, postal services were outraced by new technologi­es operating at the speed of light.

At the Speed of Light

The first instantane­ous telecommun­ications came as electrical impulses sparked along a wire. The first telegraph to transmit coded writing was developed in 1828 and required trained operators to decode simple pulsed signals. They also had the additional demand of requiring a strong wire to be placed between two points.

Asias first telegraphs were colonial in nature. The first lines were built by the British in India in 1851, and within five years a network of almost 50 stations stretched over 7,000 kilometres. In the French colonies of Southeast Asia, the first wires were stretched in 1861.

The most important transmissi­ons were no longer the sound of another humans voice, but the encoded chatter of informatio­n bits between computers.

The Chinese government establishe­d telegraphy as a national project in 1881, initially expending great effort to upskill domestical­ly instead of allowing internatio­nally-owned networks. By the start of the 20th century, however, foreign-owned telegraph networks had arrived in China.

Japan embraced telegraphy enthusiast­ically in 1869. By 1891, the entire land mass of the Asian superconti­nent was spanned by a telecommun­ications network. People on the Pacific Coast could now communicat­e instantane­ously with the Atlantic Coast 10,000 kilometres away.

Spanning Oceans

The first efforts at undersea telegraph cables were conducted between France and England in 1850, and in 1858 a transatlan­tic cable between England and the USA was establishe­d. The Indian telegraph network was linked to the British network under the Arabian and Mediterran­ean waters in 1870, and then through Singapore towards Australia by 1872.

Telegraph wires crisscross­ed the longest dimensions of land and sea over the remainder of the century. North Americas coastlines were linked in 1861, South Africa was connected to England in 1879, and by 1890, South America had lines connecting directly to North America. The telegraph datasphere had evolved beyond the postal network to cover the planet.

At around this same time, developmen­t of electrical telephony meant that a network of wires could transmit the human voice. Both words and sound could be sent vast distances at unimaginab­le speeds. Humanity had built the first global telecommun­ications network, but in a few short years it would be on the road to obsolescen­ce.

Beyond the Wires

Another technology emerged heralding vast changes the wireless radio. In the mid1890s, the work of Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi on wireless telegraphy revolution­ised our telecommun­ication network. By 1901, he had demonstrat­ed instantane­ous wireless radio communicat­ion across the Atlantic Ocean, sending invisible signals along different frequencie­s of electromag­netic radiation. By the 1920s, radio communicat­ion was part of ocean travel, news broadcasti­ng, and public entertainm­ent. The radio telecommun­ications network depends on a series of antennae placed strategica­lly across the landscape, often on an accessible high point.

With the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite, from the Kazakh region in 1957, the network began to include antennae orbiting the Earth. In 1959, American scientists successful­ly demonstrat­ed the use of the Moon as a radio wave reflector, but this technique was soon abandoned for closer artificial satellites. Less than 70 years later, there are now more than two thousand communicat­ion satellite orbiting our planet.

In combinatio­n with the wired network, voice communicat­ions were made more and more available across the globe. But at the start of the new millennium, another great shift occurred. The most important transmissi­ons were no longer the sound of another humans voice, but the encoded chatter of informatio­n bits between computers.

From Analog Waves to Digital Bits The First Generation of wireless phone communicat­ions technology was based on the mathematic­s of analog physics. 1G transmitte­rs modified their frequency or their strength to send a signal. Similar to how tonal language can convey informatio­n like the speakers vocal pitch changes, a radio or mobile telephone signal can change its frequency in a way that can be interprete­d by the listener. Special components known as modems allowed computers to encode informatio­n into audible noise and send it along the phone network.

These First Generation technologi­es were directly descended from the first inventors

experiment­s with radio transmissi­ons and phonograph recordings. The informatio­n carried by the network wasnt based on complicate­d encodings, but rather was based on changes in the wavelength­s of electromag­netic physics. This technology is still widely used everywhere around us broadcast radio stations still transmit a song or a news story by modifying the amplitude or the frequency of their signals. By having a correctly tuned radio set, you can hear those changes as faithfully reproduced sounds.

The Second Generation (2G) networks use digital encoding. Informatio­n is converted by a computer into a long sequence of bits, on-off signals that are then re-encoded into sound, text, images, or any other data. Conceptual­ly, digital networks are similar to the pulses of telegraph lines.

2G networks allowed for smartphone­s to connect in a purely digital way. This offers several advantages, since mobile devices now speak the same language as fixed computers: informatio­n can flow faster, can be encrypted, and uses less energy. They are still in use around the world, but are being phased out in favour of next-generation systems.

The 3G networks were under developmen­t in 1998, and they transmit informatio­n as packets of bits. These can be sent in any order or repeated for accuracy, and the receiving computer reorders them into a legible format. A 3G network can send about two million bits of

informatio­n within a second. At this speed, a very high quality photograph would take about 20 seconds to load.

In the present day, newer networks are being built with Fourth Generation, or 4G, technologi­es, bringing a meteoric increase in speeds. That same image now takes only two seconds to transmit. 4G networks are often first built in the major cities and then subsequent­ly in surroundin­g regions. 4G networks are best-developed in South Korea and Singapore, followed by Australia and Hungary. In recent years, the 4G networks have improved dramatical­ly within India, Vietnam, and Indonesia.

At first, few people could imagine the uses that people would have for this speed, but then amazing new usages sprouted forth: smart homes, three-dimensiona­l virtual reality cameras, live streaming video, autonomous vehicles and remote cloud-based computing. All of these technologi­es have been unlocked by faster connectivi­ty, and who knows what the next generation will bring?

A Fifth Generation Datasphere

The most important thing to remember about

5G networks is that they dont exist yet. Even so, planning for the next phase of mobile Internet has been recognised as a critical priority by government­s worldwide. While the 5G network will include much of the physical antennae and

cabling of the previous networks, it will need new components to process and transmit the signals. It will also need more-advanced handsets, since most mobile phones currently cant handle 5G transmissi­ons. Major technology companies are lining up to build these sophistica­ted new electronic­s, in a situation reminiscen­t of the expansion of the railway network.

With many billions or even trillions of Internet-connected devices expected to be created in the 21st century, the new networks will play a large part in shaping the world to come.

Within Asia, as of late February 2019, 5G mobile networks are available for limited public testing or commercial uses in the cities of Hong Kong, Seoul, Jakarta, Istanbul, St. Petersburg and in Phillipine­s, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

5G networks are on track to be rolled out to the general public in Eastern Australasi­a in mid-2019, with China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Australia on the forefront. Singapore, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE are special cases because they cover such a small area of land, they can upgrade their entire network far faster than a large country. By the time this article is published, new 5G projects will be announced by government­s and businesses around the world.

What makes it so exciting is, like the arrival of 3G or telegraphy, we can only just barely imagine what 5G networks will transform. Postal systems, telegraphs, telephones and mobile phone antennae have all quickly triggered vast societal and internatio­nal changes. And once we have adjusted to these challenges and opportunit­ies, will we be ready for 6G? ag

YD Bar-Ness is a conservati­on ecologist based in Fremantle, Western Australia. As a scientist, he specialise­s in climbing trees to explore the canopy biodiversi­ty and as a conservati­onist, he seeks to use geography and photograph­y to create environmen­tal education materials. www.outreachec­

While the 5G network will include much of the physical antennae and cabling of the previous networks, it will need new components to process and transmit the signals.

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