StarHub let me play around with 5G network. Here’s how it could change our lives

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

As far as unfulfilled tech dreams go, we’ve yet to see an era where self-driving cars, android butlers, and electric sheep are commonplace. 

But an attempt is being made to plug the gap between the world of today and the vision of tomorrow. It’s something called 5G —  fifth-generation cellular network — and it’s just one of those things that promises to fundamentally change the lives of everyone on the planet. 

And that’s not an exaggeration either. Theoretically, 5G promises wireless connection speeds that are 100 times quicker than what we’re used to with the current 4G LTE tech. That means faster access to apps, emails, and gaming on mobile devices — fast enough to download a 4K quality movie in less than a minute on your phone. 

But that’s small potatoes. The deployment of lightning-fast internet connection via 5G would mean a monumental shift in today's data-driven landscape. Think remote-controlled surgeries, streaming high-res triple-A video games on the go without lag, fully autonomous vehicles moving in fleets, and instant 3D-printing.

The fabric of connectivity spun by 5G will unify and accelerate the production of internet-connected devices, new-gen infrastructures and things that we can’t even imagine right now. 

Cellular-on-Wheels 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Despite the hype and bluster about 5G, it’s tough to demonstrate its capabilities to the masses, and it’s even tougher to make them care, especially considering that the ubiquity of the network is still a good year or two away. 

StarHub has an idea on how to get the hoi polloi onto the 5G hype train. The Singapore telco managed to strap a weatherproof 5G cell tower onto a truck, enabling next-gen network coverage wherever it may roam. No, really. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Called a 5G Cellular-on-Wheels (COW), it’s Singapore’s first 5G base station on wheels that StarHub wants to deploy in various places and events that’ll see spikes in mobile usages, like major concerts, election rallies, and Pokemon Go hotspots (folks are still playing it... right?). And you don’t even have to have a 5G-capable device to benefit from the truck’s presence — it’ll also beam out 4G LTE signals. 

The truck isn’t very mobile right now though, being stationed in front of the StarHub Green headquarters in Ubi. That’s because the COW is powering a pop-up 5G showcase located at the building’s lobby, starring four stations that demonstrate the sheer power of the cellular network. The public is welcome to check it all out until 6pm today (Dec 13). 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

Of course, none of the devices I own are even able to process the 5G bandwidth (which apparently hit over 1Gbps on mobile, but there weren’t any speed tests conducted to verify), so what StarHub did was to have the Oppo Reno 5G on hand. And it really was impressive when they showcased a multi-party video conference that ran buttery-smooth without any of the typical pixelation or lag; they might as well be talking to each other IRL. Looks like working remotely won’t be an issue after all. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

But to really put the connection to the test, StarHub wasn’t afraid to carry out a live demo of cloud gaming, a notoriously finicky thing that has seen even Google crash and burn (big oof for Stadia). In a rather pleasant surprise, 5G handled game streaming like a pro. Something as graphically intensive such as Rise of Tomb Raider managed to run steadily on an Oppo Reno 5G phone, which was even cast wirelessly onto a TV. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

A hands-on demo proved that it was legit — even though on-screen controls are pretty crappy to test out input responses, Lara Croft ran and jumped around on ice walls with little to no obvious network latency. Pretty impressive stuff for an action-adventure title, but we’ll see how 5G fares with high-intensity shooters. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

It’s not that practical today, but the promise of 5G networks portend the widespread usage of experimental applications like augmented reality. StarHub illustrated the feasibility of the tech with a device that looks very much like a Google Glass head-mounted display — something that security personnel can wear at events, buildings and checkpoints to quickly identify faces to figure out who has clearance and who doesn’t.

Which might be a dubious idea right now, actually, considering 5G will present new challenges and threats to security and privacy. 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

But something that everyone can relate to is how the next-gen network will enhance the living room entertainment experience. Without even needing to jack in via ethernet, the 5G connection (via Nokia’s 5G Fixed Wireless Access router) enabled smooth streaming of 4K content across two television sets. As 5G rolls out in the upcoming year, get ready to hear a lot about fixed wireless tech — connections have reached as fast as 4.5Gbps in lab tests, and that was back in 2016.

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

What this all means is that virtually everything can run from remote servers in the next couple of years. Storage and specced-out hardware will be a thing of the past because everything will be instantly available from the cloud. 

Unknown pleasures

“5G is almost synonymous with the world of unknown possibilities,” StarHub’s Consumer Business Group Chief Johan Buse enthused. “There’s a lot of talk about 5G, and the discussion right now is ‘What can it actually deliver?’” he remarked. 

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Thus, why StarHub will be running 5G showcases across 2020 using their mobile cell tower, letting everyone get hands-on with the future. With the blessings of government agencies like Land Transport Authority and Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), of course. 

Bused added: “We’re working on some roadshows because we see how important it is for society to experience and immerse themselves in what 5G can deliver.” 

PHOTO: AsiaOne / Ilyas Sholihyn

It’s a very early sneak preview of what the future holds because even by the end of 2022, 5G coverage will only cover about half of Singapore. Still, IMDA already has its sights on up to four 5G networks as part of an ecosystem that’ll be the backbone of the country’s digital economy. Yeah, it’s that important. 

Right now, it’s too early to fret about 5G coverage because only a handful of the phones released this year (nope, not even your mighty iPhone 11 Pro) are supercharged enough to handle it. But by the time the 5G becomes the new standard for data speeds, at least you’ll be ready and waiting. 

ilyas@asiaone.com