C Gopinath

What G are you on?

C Gopinath | Updated on August 30, 2020

Even as telcos are scrambling to get 5G services up and running, they have failied to maintain the current networks

I don’t know what ‘G’ I have and am beginning to suspect that it stands for ‘Global scam.’ Let me backtrack a bit.

The G I am referring to comes as part of ‘5G’, that is, the much-hyped fifth generation of cellular networks. Cellular networks enable the wireless phones and data transmission that we now take for granted. In fact, many people now do not even opt for a ‘landline’ phone. They want to reach and be reached anytime and anywhere. More and more of government and banking services, which often required visiting an office and waiting patiently, have moved online, avoiding the need for physical human interaction even before the Covid era. E-commerce dominates and threatens to exterminate the traditional retail habits of all of us. Thus, low-cost connectivity has become a necessity. Airports and stations provide free Wi-Fi on their premises, and many towns also do the same in and around their city centres.

With this kind of dependence, you would assume that the telecom carriers have made the wonderful world of wireless connectivity a pleasure. But let me introduce a bit of reality. Over the last few months, I have found myself wandering all over my house trying to talk to people. Sometimes a call works best near the bedroom window. A few require me to go outside. Almost every phone call gets interrupted, requiring re-dialing. And, of course, that old faithful question, “Can you hear me now?” dominates every conversation.

And I am happy to note that it is not just the insignificant individual consumer who is suffering. When I watch global channels like BBC and CNN, I often find their anchors cut-off in the middle of a conversation with their reporters from elsewhere in the world: “We’ve lost them and will try to get them back”. What G are they on?

Why does this happen when we are at the cusp of 5G? The promise of 5G is that of superfast transmission. We would be able to download a 2.6-GB movie in under five minutes. It will enable self-driving cars and augmented reality. But are we rushing to a new generation before we get the present one right?

We will have a new set of phone instruments, depending on the carrier. Remember the time when you were required to know how to not just turn the key and drive the car but also about carburetors and transmission to get from point A to point B? The equivalent in the 5G world is that different companies are planning to operate using low, medium or high band. Low bands will work well across long distances, but do not have great speed. Medium bands offer better frequency and do a better job of penetrating walls, and so will work well indoors. High bands will do well at close range, but are weak when trying to penetrate walls. So, would we have multiple phones, trying one or the other to see which works? The companies promise that the phones will switch to an earlier ‘G’ to maintain connectivity as you move between bands and networks. Does this mean we’ll be asking “can you hear me now” more?

I think these problems happen because we are at the cusp of 5G. The telecom carriers have been investing in trying to get on board with the new generation and have neglected in maintaining the old. They’re eager to get us to use more of their services for more revenue. They probably do not want to waste their time and resources in maintaining the towers and equipment that have worked till now.

Meanwhile, when I call someone, I first ask if they have a landline and switch to that. I suspect soon the firms will be investigating 6G and will cut back on maintaining even their landline networks. But fortunately, the post offices are still functioning, and so we can revert to writing letters.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on August 30, 2020

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