We will be hearing a lot about these two seemingly unrelated topics this month.
In a hurriedly but meticulously organised event, Dialog Axiata recently demonstrated 5G applications for the first time in South Asia. 5G will be commercially available soon. The following day, Korea commercially launched 5G services ahead of their initial schedules, as they rushed for first spot in the race to beat the West. In another front, some of you might have also watched the first of the six episodes of Game of Thrones - to be telecast on 15 April - by the time you read this.
5G is the fifth generation of standards for mobile telephony. It will replace 4G (LTE-A, WiMax) 3G (UMTS, LTE) and 2G (GSM). 5G technology is considered to be a ‘key technology’ that could enable mobile data rates by several gigabytes of data per second, up to a thousand times faster than mobile networks of 2010s and up to 100 times faster than 4G by the end of 2019 by early 2020s. These data rates are likely to meet the growing demand for data with the rise of smartphones and other communicating devices. 5G will also promote cloud computing, the integration and interoperability of communicating objects, smart grids, other so-called smart networks and at large, ‘smart cities’. It could also develop 3D or holographic imaging, data mining, big data management and Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
So what is the missing link between 5G and Game of Thrones? No, Jon Snow will not be using 5G to WhatsApp his queen cum lover cum aunt Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons to say she is not the last living Targaryen. Perhaps they both must be killed by the Night King before they use 5G. Valar Morghulis!
There is a more interesting link. 5G is the technology, and Game of Thrones is an application. If you prefer a different set of terms, 5G is the infrastructure and Game of Thrones is the content. One cannot survive without the other. They go and grow hand in hand.
Dynasty and The Cosby Show were our favourites in the eighties - at a time television was a novelty to Sri Lanka. Each was watched respectively by an estimated audience of 20 million in the US. The ever popular American Idol, a few decades later, too could not reach an audience more than 30 million. Game of Thrones was different. It increased its number of viewers in stages. For the first series it was a mere 2.5 million. The second season increased that to nearly 12 million within the US only. The third hit 14 million mark. For the fourth season, HBO said that its average gross audience of 18.6 million viewers. By the sixth season the average per-episode gross viewing figure had increased to over 25 million. Seventh season got 30 million audience and eight is sure to break the records for all the above mentioned. These numbers are all for direct TV audience, that too only in the US.
Game of Thrones, please note, unlike Dynasty and The Cosby Show, has other media to reach their audience. DVDs are being burnt. Copies are being sold and watched in real time over the internet. Subtitles are added for those who do not speak English. Sometimes the episodes are dubbed in foreign languages. So the direct TV audience is only a fraction of the viewership. Nobody has real data on the worldwide audience on all media, but it could be over 100 million. Maybe more.
Now imagine how much data should cross the oceans when 100 million viewers download 800 MB to 1 GB per episode. That itself will be 100,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. (1 followed by 17 zeros) This number is large. With a few more zeros it gets closer to the Avogadro number you learnt about in school. And remember, this is only one application. There are so many others. And that is why we need 5G. The content will simply overrun the demand by increasingly data-eating applications.
Data is not free. It comes with a price tag. Millions of smartphone users in Sri Lanka know that well. That is why they do not watch Game of Thrones on smartphones, while perhaps the watchers in Korea and China may. Most Sri Lankan users wait for off-peak hours to download entire episodes at a time, and then watch back to back.
There is a widespread myth about data costs in Sri Lanka. Many think data costs here are high. The truth is the opposite. Sri Lanka is among the countries where data cost is the lowest.
Says who? The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN apex body on ICTs, annually benchmarks prices for voice, SMS, and fixed and mobile broadband for its member states, explains Shazna Zuhyle, Senior Researcher for LIRNEasia, a regional pro-poor, pro-market think tank. Sri Lanka has among the lowest prices in the world, ranked at number 21 for mobile broadband (plans with minimum 1 GB data allowance/month) out of 181 countries, based on price in USD (including taxes) as a percentage of GNI per capita.
Sri Lanka has the lowest prices among SAARC countries in terms of absolute prices, as well as price as a percentage of GNI per capita, despite the relatively high tax component.
If the Government wants to address the needs of those in the poorer deciles or specific market segments, she continues, it should use the revenues collected from international calls and design targeted subsidies, without harming the already problematic investment environment. Yes, we do take note. It is at the highest level of our current agenda. But it is also noteworthy that there is no telecom levy applicable for data now. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has agreed and eliminated it fully. If further reductions are possible, without rocking the apple cart, they would be studied and changes done. There is absolutely no question about providing the data to users at the most affordable prices.
Ajith P. Perera is the Minister of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology and Chanuka Wattegama is a business writer.