A new mobile communications standard is currently being rolled out worldwide: 5G. But what exactly does this “fifth generation” stand for? What speaks in favor of rolling out a nationwide 5G network in Switzerland? Have any questions or risks surrounding 5G been left unaddressed? And what happens next? Olaf Swantee, CEO of Sunrise Switzerland, and Peter Grütter, Chairman of the Swiss Telecommunications Association (asut), answer these and other questions.
Olaf Swantee: 5G is the latest, fifth generation of mobile communications and a pivotal element of digitalization. 5G is essential for creating a seamlessly networked economy and society in which people, things, data, machines, AI applications, transport systems, cities, etc. can interact in an overarching communications environment.
Peter Grütter: Mobile communications technology has undergone continuous improvements since the first digital mobile communications were launched in 1993. 5G’s Swiss rollout goes hand in hand with the Federal Council’s “Digital Switzerland” strategy and the Federal Communications Commission acted swiftly to allocate the radio frequencies required. These efforts have today made Switzerland one of the first countries with a commercial 5G offering on the market. Mobile expansion still has to follow the exact same rules that have always applied, however: permit processes, environmental requirements and existing radiation protection limits, in particular, need to be adhered to at all times.
Not only does this technology offer ultra-fast mobile Internet, but its significantly higher responsiveness and the low level of energy consumption of the sensors used also make entirely new applications possible in business and industry: from digital agriculture to Industry 4.0 and from the Internet of Things to autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence and customized security solutions for police and fire departments.
Olaf Swantee: To be precise, 5G offers technical features like transmission speeds of up to 20 Gbps, extremely low latency, capacities that enable millions of connections within an area just a few square kilometers in size, guaranteed bandwidths in virtual networks for critical applications such as those of first responders and mobile base stations that function as supercomputers, etc. which can be used over the air across the entire country.
Olaf Swantee: These are the network operators and suppliers, mobile device manufacturers and research institutes that define 5G standards in international organizations like 3GPP or which develop and promote them further in the ITU, the UN’s International Telecommunication Union.
Peter Grütter: People will benefit from considerably faster mobile Internet. Augmented reality, in which new layers of information are added during video broadcasts of live events and 3D enhancements are used to facilitate spatial navigation, will become the standard and increasingly blur the lines between our physical and virtual worlds. Mobile broadband will also become the economical alternative in rural areas where it’s taking longer to expand the fiber-optic network.
Olaf Swantee: Besides enjoying smartphone-related advantages, we think customers will benefit from something referred to as “5G for People”, which means high-bandwidth Internet with fiber-like speeds in areas lacking fiber-optic connections in households and businesses. Not only that, but 5G will prevent bottlenecks on data highways, at least for a while. Since the amount of data transmitted through mobile communications networks doubles every 12 to18 months, networks have to be expanded on an ongoing basis.
People will benefit from new off-site working models. These reduce work-related travel, which makes them more sustainable. At the same time, people living in border regions will have more equal opportunities, not only with respect to job market access, but also in terms of their access to education, healthcare, consumer markets and much more. According to a study on the advantages of 5G conducted by the Swiss Telecommunications Association, Switzerland’s 5G network could cause production volumes to grow by more than CHF 44 billion per year by 2030 while also creating 137,000 new jobs. On the other hand, a three-year delay in 5G’s rollout – and we’re currently running into a delay – will diminish this growth by around CHF 10 billion.
Olaf Swantee: Over the next few years, for example, 5G will help us make more efficient use of scarce resources. The combination of 5G networks with data-collecting sensors will let us monitor and automate many processes in real time. The Internet of Things will become a reality and open up new ways of dealing with environmental problems, including boosting the efficiency of our water and power supply. We’ll be able to reduce waste, avoid unnecessary transport and cut down on fertilizer and pesticide use.
Peter Grütter: Countless applications will open up in business and industry that will be tailored to the specific situations found in each individual sector. In agriculture, for example, sensors and machines connected over a 5G network will increase yields while simultaneously reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides. The mechanical engineering industry will use the new generation of mobile communications to digitalize production, enhance flexibility and become even more competitive. New solutions are also becoming apparent in healthcare, urban management and transportation.
Peter Grütter: We have the technology, the first devices have already hit the market and Swiss providers are working hard to expand their networks. That means we’ve gotten off to a good start. What we need now are partnerships and a creative ecosystem for developing solutions and applications for the various sectors. There probably isn’t any single application that will do the job. There’ll be a multitude of new applications instead and, much like the wide range of apps that helped make smartphones a success, new solutions and wearables will shape the 5G landscape.
Olaf Swantee: This all hinges on our ability to build powerful, nationwide 5G networks. But given Switzerland’s uniquely strict radiation limits for mobile communications and the long, complicated antenna construction process, doing this within a useful timeframe will be practically impossible. Failing to adapt limits and building regulations will prevent us from using 5G as we described earlier and Switzerland will lag behind.
Olaf Swantee: A seamlessly networked economy and society is an attractive target for cybercriminals. Successful attacks would have devastating consequences. 5G offers the highest security standards, but that isn’t enough on its own. Cyber risks are often addressed using an overly national, isolated approach, so a bit more diligence is needed here, both by the industry as a whole and at the international level. That’s also the thrust of what leading cyber security experts are saying. Plus, with all the fake news about 5G floating around, the general population is uncertain about the health impacts of this new technology. What we need to do is allay their fears and provide them with facts. It’s a fact that more than 30 years of research and thousands of studies have not demonstrated any verifiable harmful impact on health as long as the WHO-recommended limits are observed. In Switzerland, the limit is set at just one-tenth of the WHO-recommended limit and should be changed.
Peter Grütter: It’s true that the rollout of this new generation of mobile communications has triggered some unease in certain portions of the population. Some people are afraid of mobile communication waves in general, others feel that technologies are developing too quickly, still others express concerns regarding security and data protection. All these worries need to be taken seriously. It’s important to know that 5G uses radio frequencies or signals that are very similar to those being used by previous generations of mobile communications or even Wi-Fi. The radiation protection limits also still apply unchanged and the precautionary principle is adhered to for all mobile communications systems. That means there are no “new” risks. But these facts and information need to be disseminated better. Here, the federal authorities have made a valuable contribution and they provide extensive information on the topic on their websites. However, the cantonal and municipal authorities also play an important role in this.
Peter Grütter: Yes, of course. If our second-most-important trading partner intends to stop cooperating with Chinese tech companies for an extended period of time, the far-reaching nature of US trade policy means that this could very well have an impact on how Swiss providers assess Chinese companies. But I don’t think this scenario is inevitable, not by any means. If the globally integrated economy evolves into a bi- or multi-polar economy over the long term, however, every part of Switzerland’s economy would have to realign to this new reality – not just mobile service providers.
Olaf Swantee: The sanctions, some of which have already been lifted, concern Huawei’s supply chain. They were expected and do not impact Sunrise directly. Of course, we conduct risk assessments for all of our suppliers and have contingency plans in place. Since both the Federal Council and the Federal Intelligence Service spoke out against Huawei’s exclusion, we are not planning to change suppliers.
Peter Grütter: A glimpse across the country’s borders reveals that the EU supports a swift rollout of 5G. Austria even has an actual 5G strategy and wants to become a pioneer in Europe. Everybody expects 5G to lay the groundwork for future jobs, successful businesses and efficient administration. Here, we haven’t been able to convince everyone in Switzerland yet that 5G represents a huge opportunity for our country. What we need is for the telecom sector and the corporate users of its services to join forces. After all, 5G’s success doesn’t just hinge on mobile service providers, rather on every company working in the areas of retail, logistics, media, industry, finance, insurance, healthcare, etc.
Olaf Swantee: It’s extremely important to us that we respond to fears fueled by fake news in social media transparently and with facts. We use a variety of channels, such as the media, customer service, local events, etc. on an ongoing basis to provide people with factual information about 5G and are in contact with local, cantonal and federal authorities. While it will still take a while for the discussion to shift to a more objective level, we’re already seeing some progress being made in that direction. People are taking an increasingly differentiated approach when addressing the topic, plus we will continue to step up our efforts to intensify discussions with the industry association.
Peter Grütter: Communication is vital. Ultimately, however, it will be 5G’s new applications and solutions that help make it a success among the people of Switzerland, in the business world and in the government.