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INNOVATION | 28.09.2020

What if coronavirus had broken out in 2030?

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The commercial launch of 5G in China took place in November, which happened to be the same month in which the first coronavirus case was detected. And today, China is spearheading the early adoption of the technology: it is on course to reach 70 percent of its overall 5G connections this year, based on GSMA data presented in the report ‘The Mobile Economy China 2020.

Wuhan, where the pandemic started, was one of the first cities to experiment with this new telecommunications system. At the most critical moments of the outbreak, 5G networks were quickly set up to cover new emergency hospitals and public spaces. This made it possible for patients to receive treatment via automated attendants, as well as to deploy robot patrols to monitor the use of masks, body temperature and to perform disinfection in complex areas.

The adoption of these and other measures has highlighted how 5G can propel digital transformation in health systems. “Thanks to the features of 5G such as high-speed connection, high reliability and low latency, [China’s] health system has benefited from improvements in response time, patient supervision, data capture and analysis, remote collaboration and assignment of resources,” says the report “Combating COVID-19 with 5G: Opportunities to improve public health systems,” prepared by Deloitte in collaboration with Huawei.


5G, a giant leap in terms of speed, latency and reliability

All this indicates that this new generation will revolutionize our lives in various ways. Taking a look at the comparative data is enough to give an idea of the great leap that it represents: the higher bandwidth of 5G means an increase in speed of between 10 and 100 times on average compared to what we got with 4G. Equally notable is the improvement in latency, i.e., the speed at which the network responds. With 5G, this is only 1 millisecond, whereas with 4G it’s 10 milliseconds. What’s more, there is a greater capacity for connecting devices, which will allow them to be managed in real time. It also offers much more reliability, in other words, it reduces the number of errors that the network may make when transmitting and receiving information.

However, we will still have to wait to enjoy all these technical benefits. The fifth generation of mobile networks is only available at the commercial level in 24 markets around the world. Furthermore, its deployment is limited to large cities. All the same, by 2025 one out of every five cell phone connections will be on 5G networks, states the GSMA in its Mobile Economy Report.

How 5G would have helped in this worldwide health crisis  

What could it have improved in this unprecedented health crisis if it had been fully operational? “5G would have provided enhanced inter-coordination between emergency services, not just for health-related services but for the police and other agencies, and the capacity to monitor confinement. It also would have meant greater agility when verifying people’s mobility, enhanced data management and an increase in the network’s capacity to send very large data files,” says Eduard Martin, 5G director for Mobile World Capital Barcelona. For this expert, 5G would have prevented patient overcrowding in ICUs: “The possibility of real-time control or monitoring of patients, especially not very severe cases, could have taken pressure off hospitals, since patients could have been sent home and been monitored remotely.”

As for sending large amounts of data, for example, it would have allowed for better communication between patients confined in hospitals or the elderly in care homes and their families, due to the capability of “connecting a large number of devices simultaneously with excellent video reception,” Martin explains. This is nothing like the quality of video calls with 4G, where it is common for transmission to be cut off and for images to be pixelated. Also, “in mass diagnosis scenarios such as in the pandemic, the ability to share high-quality images using 5G with medical experts in different locations considerably increases the capability for diagnosing and treating patients with complicated illnesses,” María Luis Melo, Director of Institutional Relations, Communications and CSR for Huawei Iberia pointed out.

Another obvious technological application that 5G connectivity revolutionizes is temperature monitoring, a measure that acts as a first line of defense. With this technology, artificial intelligence-assisted thermal images are taken, and “it is possible to monitor the temperatures of over 200 people per minute,” said Ms. Melo. The same is true with computerized tomography, one of the primary procedures for detecting pneumonia: “With artificial intelligence and the cloud, diagnoses can be sped up from 14 to 2 minutes,” the Huawei executive stressed.

Better connectivity would have reduced the territorial digital divide, in remote towns and rural areas, not only to provide telemedicine and teleconsultation services, but also for teleworking and tele-learning. 

Had COVID-19 occurred in 2030…

While some of these medical applications were implemented during the coronavirus crisis in countries like China and South Korea, the pandemic has highlighted the relevance of communication networks for the entire planet. Even though we will still have to wait five years for 5G technology to be fully deployed, based on the forecast of José Antonio Portilla Figueras, member of the governing board of the Official Association of Telecommunications Engineering (COIT) and director of the ISDEFE-UAH Observatory on ITC and Digital Progress. What will telemedicine or smart health look like in 2030, when the network is completely developed?

Within ten years, living in a remote village will not pose a problem in terms of accessing remote diagnosis services. These days we have to travel to see a medical specialist but with a 5G system and devices that communicate with each other, a physician “could perform a complete diagnosis, avoiding costly travel expenses and could provide this service during lockdown caused by coronavirus,” indicated Mr. Portilla.

Mr. Portilla also sees an obvious use for 5G in the area of telecare due to increasing longevity in developed countries. The advantage is that this new telecare system not only advises on whether an individual has a problem, as is done now, but it will also know what the individual’s specific problem is. “5G has capacity for a million devices per square kilometer, which makes it possible to increase sensory capacity. For example, the gyroscope sensor in a smart phone will detect when an individual falls over. If you add to this other devices that could be carried (wearables), all of which will be connected to the network, the specialist will receive information from those and will know what has happened to them and will be able to make a diagnosis,” says Portilla, for whom this dynamic is not as far away as it seems.

During the pandemic, hospitals canceled non-COVID-19 related surgical operations to care for coronavirus sufferers and prevent the virus from spreading. In 2030, some of these procedures would have been undertaken via remote surgery. The low latency of 5G will facilitate the handling of robotic systems for this purpose like never before. With this type of remote operation, anybody will be capable of performing first aid—known as non-expert remote assistance—where a specialist provides advice real time.

In ten years, in an emergency, medical ambulances will be such that the hospitalization process will start directly in the ambulance. “As it is now, technicians in an ambulance basically communicate by telephone to provide information so that everything is ready in the hospital when they arrive. If someone carrying wearables goes to hospital in an ambulance that is transmitting all that data at a high speed over a very reliable network, it saves time, which can be crucial for some complications,” says Portilla.

In the future, some patients will not even need to go to a medical center to receive treatment. “The hospital will be connected and will have the capability to monitor vital signs and deal with the patient in real time, just as if the doctor were there,” Eduard Martin states. 

Coronavirus has been both a limitation and incentive for the deployment of 5G

The pandemic has been a limitation, but also an incentive to accelerate the implementation of 5G networks. Prior to this crisis, the focus for deployment was on the industrial sectors. It is currently more oriented to the quality of connectivity for end users, both in cities and rural areas: “Previously, we were highly focused on self-driving and networked cars, industry 4.0 and health care. Now, the focus is surely on social assistance, teleworking support, rural areas, online education, etc. These are all going to be business areas where it may make a lot of sense to reinforce the role of 5G to provide citizens with good communications systems, which is essential,” says Eduard Martin. María Luisa Melo clearly agrees: “Technology has played an integral role during the coronavirus in many areas, such as teleworking, remote education and health. The technological development and evolution of 5G will be critical in various areas of our lives in the future.”

Nobody doubts that 5G technologies have assisted in the worldwide response to the coronavirus crisis. Mainland China has been the only country that has made full use of them in its response. And this experience has shown that the technology is essential in the area of telehealth. Along with social benefits, there are also economic ones: a European Commission report estimates that the deployment of 5G in the automotive, health, transport and supply sectors alone will reach 62.5 million euros of direct annual impact within the EU in 2025.