5G, Open Source And EdTech: Learning In The Age Of 100 Times Faster Internet

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Gotta go fast! 🦔

Advocates and sales forces focused on government procurement are keen on convincing the public that speed is the indisputable advantage of 5G, the fifth generation of mobile internet technology. But while everyone would be happier with faster upload and download speeds, there are other advantages many would find as desirable, if not more. Latency, concurrency and even carbon footprint are benefits worth understanding, if not promoting actively.

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The same goes for learning technologies, Open EdTech especially. Thanks to the controversies involving a certain network technologies company from China and the US, a more substantive debate touched on otherwise fringe issues: Firmware, cybersecurity, trade and economic implications. On the education side, the potential is vast and bright. Opportunities for awareness, education and training are manifold.

So what’s the deal with an extra ‘G’

It is, admittedly, a bit arbitrary to set a difference between 4G and 5G. Technological progress is ongoing and delivered on a constant basis. We can, however, understand 5G as the sum of a series of milestones, some more impressive than others, some more specific and more closely related to basic research than others. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is the final judge in determining which technologies belong to which generation.

But for all the obvious (and the not-so) benefits of 5G in education and as a whole, key issues of ownership and agency remain. Without going too further into the weeds, it does seem striking that a single company has enough market power to imply that its absence could compromise a nation’s 5G development roadmap, especially in a market-based economy. There are too many variables involved, but a key element is the firmware question. In very general terms, government procurement contracts include service provision over the long run, even decades. But what happens afterwards? History is full of dead-locked contracts where governments are captive to holders of intellectual property, likely forever.

Open Source deserves a seat at the table, something in most cases impossible without awareness and education.

The technical breakdown

  • Yes, Speed. Average comparisons put 5G between 6 and 10 times the general and maximum speed of 4G today. This also includes mobile networks, whose 1000× increase could dealt the final blow to Ethernet ports.
  • Bandwidth, Frequency, Density. Related to the above but emphasizing the reduced initial lag and the ability of a given device to establish connections with a lot more simultaneous devices.
  • Latency: It amounts to the end of congestion on the information highways. Average response between devices (including servers) would fall below 10 milliseconds.
  • Concurrency: At a given node, modem or hotspot, the number of devices that can seamlessly connect (and remain connected) increases an order of magnitude.
  • Landscape summary: Computers, tablets and phones, along with cars, smart appliances, IoT devices and VR headsets for utility or leisure, all interconnected and able to talk to one another in real time, most sporting high-res video recording capability with embedded real-time visual recognition feeding algorithms of complexity far exceeding the comprehension of any one human.

5G does not come with a few new or renewed concerns:

  • Storage and processing demand: The specialized media is undecided on whether the cost of hard drives can continue their rise, as part of a broader disagreement on whether Moore’s law has finally been broken. In a world connected in unprecedented ways, will our devices require less storage? Or will being able to download files in dimensions of unforeseeable quality, applications, even entire sections of cutting-edge neural networks and other machine learning systems create a hardware bottleneck?
  • Cybersecurity: The current cat-and-mouse game, on steroids. Firewalls, encryption algorithms and similar solutions will face a heightened level of unprecedented dynamics.
  • Connectivity gap: On par with most human achievements, some will soon become accustomed to breakthroughs in “edge computing” that were unthinkable a few years ago, while hundreds of millions still don’t own a device or are familiar with the concept (and threats) of a digital identity.
  • Even more buzzwords. Some of my favorites include “Internet of Context” and “Smart Factories.” (Feel free to “Internet of” and “Smart” pile on.)

5G, world savior

(Or barring a sociopolitical revolution on a global scale, the next best thing.)

Estimates put 5G’s energy efficiency at up to 90% of current 4G, bit-to-bit transferred. It will increase battery lives, likely contributing to saving some actual lives. The effects can compound, especially if coupled with a clearer understanding of energy consumption per device, as systems could allocate processing tasks where it is more efficient to do so instantly.

In addition, it can be argued that setting up 5G infrastructure would be more cost effective than 4G, with a possible benefit for places where no network had been set up before. Fewer towers (if not 100% satellite-based deployment), spread further apart will allow more devices to connect faster, consuming less electricity. They are also expected to be easier and cheaper to install and maintain.

A final element into the mix is the rise of AI and smart algorithms, whose development and prominence only stand to benefit in a 5G era. From bread-and-butter network management, to their flourishing as mobility, surveillance and carbon emissions controller, this new era will empower the technology further as it sharpens its ability to guide us into more desirable outcomes from our technological use.

5G for Open EdTech, or EdTech for Open 5G?

But this puts us back to the nagging issue of firmware. Who will own the algorithms running the public infrastructure? If they involve AI taking care of network traffic (or just real traffic), who will own the learning? This is a complicated question even at the heart of the Open Source community. It poses a dilemma with ethical undertones: If open source algorithms improve thanks to private user data, how can they remain useful to everyone? It would largely depend on the majority of users finding a comfortable mechanism of use-based algorithm feedback.

Which in turns, places the question squarely on education and EdTech. It is, in fact, a series of questions:

  • How should the education community approach 5G as an issue and as a subject matter?
  • What is necessary for Open EdTech advocates to vouch for the development of global and local 5G infrastructure?

Things you can do

  • Discuss 5G with your peers. As an educator, introduce the subject in your learning. As we have hope to illustrate, 5G has implications for a broad variety of disciplines.
  • Encourage fact-based, active standings on digital network infrastructure procurement among the citizenship.
  • Stay on top of the news. (Sign up for our Open 5G Pulse.)
  • And of course, get ready to enjoy an unprecedented reduction in lag!
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