Recently, many of us woke up to messages from our network providers declaring that our cities and SIMS are 5G-enabled. The message was loud and clear — the fifth generation of cellular network technology stands tall, knocking on our doors and is slated to make significant headway in 2023.

Projections of technological advancements and commensurate economic growth propelled by 5G are copious and well-founded. But one has to wade through an alphabet soup of technologies like IoT, automation, virtual reality, Web3 to comprehend the extent to which 5G can change our world. Even with this, it is argued that we barely scratch the surface of 5G’s true transformative potential.

In fact, certain estimates posit that it could be years before the full potential of the technology is realised. But the interesting question is what ensues in the years preceding this apotheosis? How will this march of technology alter our spaces or our imagination of the word ‘urban’?

A thought experiment to prognosticate what 5G means for the design and planning of future urban environments in India evokes an imagery of small islands of wealth-creation driven by technological innovation that is 5G. These islands can be visualised as compact, well-connected and well-equipped urban systems centred around one or more 5G-induced economic or social activities.

It is through the mushrooming of such 5G islands that the future of urbanisation would unfold in India. And we suppose this prognosis on our distillation of the 5G technology per se. We argue that 5G would transform many economic activities, alter the nature of professional interactions, necessitate the localisation of certain tasks and the establishment of specific infrastructure. And all of this would drive a new form of urbanisation in India.

The technology

While each new generation of mobile network has provided users with better speed, the brouhaha over 5G can be attributed to the astronomical increase in mobile users in the past decade. These users increasingly expect better communication, faster data access and in greater volumes. 5G promises to deliver all that and more.

With high speed and negligible time lag, machine-to-machine communication and Internet of Things (IoT) — that is, connected smart devices, sharing real-time data with each other will become common. Large quantities of data produced by these devices would require real-time processing, in turn, driving the adoption of edge computing.

This means data will have to be processed as close as possible to the data source. It may further entail the setting-up of small or micro data centres in the vicinity — perhaps something that network providers may setup close to 5G towers. The almost undecipherable lag in communication may finally make virtual reality co-working plausible and seamless.

Although it is early to say, 3D simulation and virtual environments may facilitate employees seeking the human connect by inducing the same physical-space water-cooler revelry or its Indian form, the ‘chai-time’ camaraderie, online. 5G may thus help overcome the Zoom fatigue. By letting anyone work from anywhere, this technology may also make our geographies exceedingly insignificant.

Finally, 5G as a technology is not just for the consumer market but is designed to be an enabling network for a plethora of market verticals like agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, automotive, welfare service-delivery, to name a few. This means 5G cannot solely rely on the consumer-market to pay off its costs but is posited to monetise its application in businesses.

Time-critical communication provided by 5G may revolutionise sectors like manufacturing. The deployment of captive 5G network in Mahindra’s auto manufacturing facility in Chakan last month is a case-in-point. This property will largely be facilitated by utilising high frequency bandwidth that can carry large amounts of data per unit time.

But the problem with high band is that it travels shorter distances and is easily absorbed by objects. To placate this problem of low network coverage, high density of antennas will have to be positioned.

Although 5G antennas are much smaller than 4G, new sites will still have to be acquired by network providers for this infrastructure. Setting this up would, however, make business sense only above a certain range of population density.

Technological hubris aside, all the 5G technologies discussed above throw up interesting insights for the future of urbanisation. Be it localised micro-data centres or 5G-networked industries or the antenna infrastructure, it will require the establishment of hubs replete with 5G-propelled economic units, network infrastructure and social provisions for the employees and their families, or, what we call the ‘5G islands’.

These islands could take the form of townships specifically suited to employees in remote-working sectors or be centred around automatic or semi-automatic industrial clusters; opportunities galore. Parts of existing cities may be overlaid with these islands or new islands may be planned closer to bigger cities much like the existing satellite cities. These townships may even come up in the underutilised peri-urban areas.

Either way, 5G-specific applications relying on higher bands will open vistas of growth opportunity for the country and will drive a new form of urbanisation. This new form can also be sustainable and resilient if appropriate planning techniques are used. Compact urbanisation means lower land uptake per inhabitant and per job. This can be complemented with mosaic landscapes with mixed land utilisation and undisturbed natural stretches in between.

It will thus be useful to have urban planners and policymakers consider the impact of 5G proliferation on urbanisation while the former is still taking shape so that India can see well-planned, efficient, sustainable and resilient urban systems in the future.

Pokharna is Executive Director, Pahle India Foundation, and Abrol is Junior Researcher, Centre for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn