Five new ways to think about 5G: The speed trap

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The global internet backbone operates at light speed, but that’s not fast enough for 5G. Europe CTIO, Gunnar Menzel, considers solutions.

Financiers François and Louis Blanc stood trial for manipulating France’s stock markets by piggybacking data on a superfast, classified comms network built by the French government. Don’t recall the story? Maybe because it happened in 1837.

The hot technology of the time was the optical telegraph – a cross-country chain of big towers within line of sight that used moving signal arms to pass coded messages. The system could transmit information across the country within minutes – thousands of times faster than messengers on horseback. It was a latency revolution.

The Blanc brothers’ hack was the oldest in the book – social engineering. They bribed telegraph operators to add coded information about stock movements in Paris to the messages they were sending. Receiving this information in Bordeaux days ahead of competitors, they cleaned up.

And yes, they totally got away with it. There was no actual law against using the system for personal communications, so the case was dismissed.

Moving fast and breaking things in Napoleonic France

The networks of optical telegraph towers that stretched from Moscow to London in the early 19th century sound absurd to us today, but they were the culmination of an ancient tech tree. Beacon fires on hilltops had been transmitting messages across empires and kingdoms since prehistory.

Invented in Napoleonic France in the 1790s, optical telegraphy improved on beacons in two ways. First, operators watched neighboring towers through telescopes rather than with the naked eye, greatly increasing the viable distance between the network’s nodes. Second, the moving signal arms on top of each tower were able to encode arbitrary text, unlike beacon fires which are simply on or off.

There is almost no cultural memory of optical telegraphy today, despite the size and complexity of the networks built during its heyday, perhaps because the technology was completely eclipsed by the electric telegraph within a few decades. Fast-moving disruptive tech had a long history when Silicon Valley was still three sheds and a donkey.

Wait and c

The strength of optical telegraphy, and beacons, is that the signal moves at light speed across the majority of the network’s geographical reach. The routing and repeater nodes (the towers operated by humans) are what slow everything down.

It’s a problem that persists today. The global internet backbone operates at light speed, as do radio signals between local nodes and end devices, but when you click a link it doesn’t always feel like the data bounces back at 300,000,000 m/s. It’s the nodes that route and convert signals from electrical to radio to optical and back again that slow things down. And it’s here in “last-mile” latency that 5G makes a difference.

But if last-mile latency dramatically improves, the speed of the backbone itself can become an issue. Light speed is extremely fast, but it’s not infinite. Even in ideal conditions (light speed in a vacuum) the round trip from New York to Sydney takes over 100 ms. Add in real-world annoyances, like the reduced speed of light in optical fiber and the fact that no network operates in a straight line, and actual latency on this roundtrip is probably between 200 and 300 ms. That’s a noticeable delay when last-mile latency is 10 ms or less.

On the edge

5G means that, for the first time, last-mile latency will often be less than backbone latency. This is a problem for any organization serving a globally distributed customer base. If your data center is a long way from lots of your customers, your quality of service will be poorer (i.e. noticeably slower) than competitors with physically closer data centers.

The potential answer to this problem has been around for a while – edge and fog computing. These may finally come into their own as last-mile latency drops and the sheer volume of data from the IoT skyrockets.

Fog can be thought of as a fabric that connects edge devices to the public cloud. But it’s not a passive conduit. Woven into this fabric is sufficient processing power to determine which parts of the tsunami of IoT data needs to be sent all the way to the cloud, and which parts can stay local. In very simple terms, it means data that is only likely to be needed locally stays local, where it can be accessed much more quickly.

No matter how delightful it is at first, consumers will quickly become used to the speed of 5G, and demand that all services keep up. At that point, the major challenge of building an effective fog network will become an urgent one for many global organizations.

If you’re wondering what happened to the Blanc brothers, they went into the gambling business and eventually opened a casino in a little-known holiday resort called Monte Carlo, figuring it made sense to take their services close to where people wanted them.


This blog is part 3 of a series of five written by Capgemini Europe Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Gunnar Menzel.
Read part 4 of this series – Five new ways to think about 5G: Know your place.
Missed the previous blogs? Read them here:
Part 1: Five new ways to think about 5G: The element of surprise
Part 2: Five new ways to think about 5G: In space, no one can hear your latency

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