5G as a Material — getting our heads around the systemic properties of future mobile networks

The notion that something new equals progression is profoundly embedded in our commercial culture. Improved is almost a synonym for new and we characterize a new version of just about anything as better, especially if it involves any kind of technology. In mobile wireless network systems ‘improved’ often means more; more speed, more capacity, more responsiveness, more frequencies etc., and unless technical abbreviations like WCDMA, LTE and HSPA are very meaningful to you, faster is clearly the most commonly noticeable and understandable characteristics of the mobile network evolution, from 2G (GPRS, EDGE) and 3G to 4G. It only makes sense that people expect ‘faster’ to be the main feature of the fifth generation too.

New and improved

The notion that something new equals progression is profoundly embedded in our commercial culture. Improved is almost a synonym for new and we characterise a new version of just about anything as better, especially if it involves any kind of technology. In mobile wireless network systems 'improved' often means more; more speed, more capacity, more responsiveness, more frequencies etc., and unless technical abbreviations like WCDMA, LTE and HSPA are very meaningful to you, faster is clearly the most commonly noticeable and understandable characteristics of the mobile network evolution, from 2G (GPRS, EDGE) and 3G to 4G. It only makes sense that people expect 'faster' to be the main feature of the fifth generation too.

However — and keeping in mind that the 5G is currently a working name and PR-handle for a few slightly different visions and a bunch of technologies and technical concepts, which mostly exists in different research labs, it will be commercially available some time during the early 20-ids — we are already pretty sure that this time, faster will only be one part of something bigger.

So we have been doing some work where we explore and think about 5G beyond the technological aspects; how it might relate to cultural, social, ethical, financial or political matters, for instance. We have been working with this as a kind of meta umbrella-project for the last year or so, and what we are interested in is how the characteristics of 5G as a system will affect use and user experience, in a very broad sense. I will come back to some of the initial outcomes in a bit, but first I think its worth mentioning how we have been working with this:

When we try to understand a complex system, such as "5G + people/culture", holistically, we have found it useful to approach the whole thing as if we examine a new material. Although not as easily recognisable or workable as solid pieces of wood, plastic or metal, mobile systems can be thought of as a kind of immaterial-material composite, which has particular characteristics, limitations, structures etc. And this 5G mobile system 'material' will affect the way we experience tomorrows networked society.

[space for you thinking "wait, what ...material?!"]

Kind of. Metaphorically-ish. This isn't an attempt to be esoteric, but exploring 5G as design material is a strategy we use for understanding the systemic properties of complex systems, which is a very different kind of understanding than the expert's knowledge of all its individual technical components (the good old eternal reductionism-vs-holism battle...). We basically think of a system as if it is a kind of matter which is an essential ingredient in connected products, artefacts, vehicles, buildings, environments etc., and the way it behaves, how its inherent structural and performative (as well as legal, political and social) characteristics affect our experience of those things in a way that is as dominant as the physical materials they are made from, or the graphical user interfaces they are operated with for that matter.

Jack Schultze (co-founder of BERG who we have worked with in the past and occasionally have a chat with) wrote something a while back which resonates with how we think:

There is a power to be found in understanding everything from systems, to APIs, to components, to data, through to their enveloping materials (such as plastics and metals) as substrates to interfere with, bend and test. Through this we form complete wholes that make a common cultural sense to people, as products. The common category that contains services, APIs, plastics, componentry and their manufacturing processes is their behaviours and their consistencies, their immateriality.

'Substrate' is a good image. Another good metaphor is 'dark matter', which the designer and urbanist Dan Hill has written about; illustrating the organisational and cultural structures and relations that shape systems, which shape products — the 'something' that only can be perceived through its effect on other things.


So lets try to exemplify this approach by thinking a bit on how we perceive the characteristic of the mobile network systems we use today. Admittedly, most people don't know or care how wireless connectivity works. It's just there. And even when someone do care, wireless connectivity is inherently invisible and intangible leaving very few evident clues to build any kind of understanding on. There are however a few things that we can experience, directly or indirectly, which reveals at least some contours of how the infrastructure works, how it performs and how it is structured.

Wireless networks are one if those things we tend to notice the most when it not working; when webpages or apps loads painfully slow or the "No connection" error message appear, or a phone-call drops while we talk. When these things occur we look for clues to figure out if we can do something, anything, to make it work again. One clue is the signal strength icon. It makes sense that a weak signal is not a good thing and most people have also learnt that in addition to the signal strength, the kind of signal – the letters and numbers 4G, 3G, EDGE or GPRS – also means something for how well our connected gadgets work.

Many of us have also experienced that the network performance can be affected by things in our physical environment. People develop strategies for attempting to get a better signal, such as moving closer to a window, holding the phone up in the air or in a different angle or climbing higher up (mobile phones are known as 'rooftop-phones' in parts of rural India). Many people also know that the signal could disappear when entering a tunnel, basement or elevator. Many of us have experienced that if we are in an unusually crowded place and the time is around midnight on new years eve, things work bad even if the signal is great. Or perhaps we're abroad and have turned data roaming off. Or we (accidentally) joined a public wi-fi network, which doesn't work for some reason, and since our "smart" connected thing insist on using wifi for data, we are trapped until we manually turn wifi off. Etc.

Apart from performance, we can even experience things that hints to how the network is structured. The fact that we must have a physical SIM-card and a subscription to get connected says something about how the network is organised and also who owns and controls it. Another thing that indirectly points toward a certain structure is the pricing models. When the rates for calls to others using the same operator is cheaper than calls to someone using another operator, and a call to someone in another country is even more expensive, this hints towards the fact that there are actually several interconnected networks that sometimes are in different locations, which again is evidence that our wireless connection is part of physical infrastructure, boxes, cables, antennas, radios, that someone has built and installed in vast geographical areas.

The phone numbers reveal this structure too. In many countries the first couple of digits of the phone numbers tells if it's a fixed phone, in which country it is located or even region, city or part of a city, or if it is a mobile using a specific operator. And the ringback tone  too: if we call someone who is connected via an operator in a different country or is using a particular local operator that has a custom ringback tone. And when we are abroad ourselves, we can see that the name of the operator indicated on our devices is not the same as we are seeing back home.

Most people have a notion that a phone-call is not going directly from one phone to another when we call someone, but that it is routed via an operator, which are understood to be hubs to which all mobiles are connected. We have an analogue ancestor to this model from when telephones were physically connected to each other with wires, in the really really old days even manually connected by a person, the Operator, using a switchboard. This structure is still more or less applicable today, only it is digital, automatically operated by computers and the wires to our phones are gone.

The structure (or topology in network-lingo) that these clues point towards is a centralised structure; a 'star network topology'. A bit simplified each mobile operator is the centre of an asterisk-shape, which are connected to each other so they become a 'multi-star network topology'.

The mobile systems 'material' is like a composite with at least four different interwoven layers; the physical (radio waves, antennas, cables, routers, gateways, data centres etc.), the digital (signals, data, metadata; content), the commercial (business models, rates, services) and the political (ownership, agreements, regulations and legislations). How these layers are applied can make a different network.

So when we say that 5G is going to be 'different', not only about more speed, how will it be different and how may the way we experience the network through our mobiles and other connected things change? Apart from the relatively straightforward performance characteristics (faster, more and bandwidth etc), what other characteristics will 5G have? In our 5G-as-a-material work we have mapped out five rough groups of characteristics that we think will be defining for the way we experience and make sense of future connected products and a networked society:

ive rough groups of characteristics

More powerful
Performance will be super. Over a hundred times the data rate that commercial 4G can squeeze through today at its best is already tested in the labs. Since we know the experienced of speedy bit rate, this is the easiest to imagine (we could all stream 4K video all the time etc.)

Distributed resources (integrated cloud)
Then there is the cloud. For some new applications made possible by the increased performance and structural diversity, the bottleneck will not necessarily be the speed of the signals through the air, but rather the time it takes to send huge amounts of data to a datacenter on the other side of the globe, calculate something and give a result back, in very short time. Therefore the cloud will sometimes need to be distributed and dynamically moved as close as possible to where it is needed, when it is needed. This means that 'cloud' should become a part of the network itself and also that routers, gateways and all the connected devices with different available capabilities (processors, storage) could become parts of a distributed data centre. (some researchers refer to this kind of cloud as fog; pieces of the clouds close to the ground).

Structural diversity
The structure will change. Or evolve. It will not only be the asterisk-shaped star network where everything connects via the centre. 5G will have a more distributed structure and allow for things to connect directly to each other or in chains, or in small ad-hoc networks created on the fly. And combinations of these.

The Aware Network (Software defined)
Currently our mobiles have some kind of awareness of the network, but they can not influence or control it. Mobiles can detect the signal strength and kind (as described earlier). But what if the network was aware of it's own reach and strength, and could dynamically adapt if needed? This is about making the network work more like software with APIs, but also about making it able to use radio frequencies dynamically, to use any open frequency that is not in use for example.

New functionality
As a consequence of some of the above characteristics, the network itself could make some novel features available to be used in different applications, such as very accurate indoor positioning in three axes. If could also enable connected devices with extremely low energy consumption.

As mentioned, this getting-our-heads-around-the-'material' work is an umbrella under which we do a number of other research projects. One such project we did last year was a prototype of a telepresence setup where we drove a remote controlled toy excavator from its driver seat via a 360° spherical camera streaming real time video (using a custom WebRTC solution) to an oculus rift (the proto can even be watched on BBC News). This is a way to sketch an experience of what the combination of extreme performance and an integrated cloud could mean, which in a real disbelief-suspending setup would involve transcoding and transmitting stereoscopic 8K video with 3D augmented reality overlays, from one place, through 'the fog', to somewhere else, and back again, in sync with haptic feedback, control signals and sensor data, in real-time with virtually no noticeable delay. The need for tight integration between different and currently isolated parts of the network becomes tangible though a prototype like this.

Approaching 5G as a material give us a broader sense and better holistic understanding, and in combination with more traditional brainstorming and research it makes us able to develop concepts and prototypes which we use as catalysts for richer conversations about future technology development.

Top photo "New & Improved" by Grant Hutchinson, used under creative commons licence, found on flickr.

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