How Could 5G Ubiquity Affect API Design?

Few terms have been used more widely than 5G, and for a good reason. Even once you remove the marketing gimmicks, 5G is still set to deliver a revolutionary step forward for connectivity. This isn't just a simple speed upgrade — 5G promises to deliver a wide range of benefits.

Because 5G is so important, it seems appropriate to take a moment and look at the bigger picture. Below, we'll answer a few questions concerning 5G. What is the current state of 5G in the global market? Where are we in terms of the planned rollout? What improvements will 5G deliver? Most importantly for this audience, we'll explore what 5G will enable for web application development.

The State of the 5G Rollout: Uneven Distribution

5G is currently being rolled out globally, but it helps to look at the picture in a regional sense to get an idea of what that rollout actually looks like. Currently, much of the world still relies on 4G connectivity, and most of it depends on even older technology to provide basic network functionality. This simple fact has resulted in an unequal world of 5G application, with some countries implementing 5G in extremely limited metropolitan areas while others deploy across the entire country.

South Korea, predictably, leads the pack in this sense. South Korea has long enjoyed some of the fastest internet speeds on the planet, and 5G is no exception. Not only do they lead the world in adoption, but they also boast the fastest download speeds. Much of Europe similarly enjoys fast speeds, although these speeds are typically less than half of what South Koreans enjoy. The United States has highly variable speeds, with some metropolitan areas boasting acceptable speeds while the average nationwide speed is only about twice as fast as 4G.

Much of the reason is this is true is because of the nature of the communications spectrum. 5G operates across a wide range of bands, and utilizes different bands to do different things. Higher bands allow for much higher data transmission, but it does this with the tradeoff of much more limited geographic deployment. You get more compact data when using higher bands, but you can't transmit as far. Lower bands provide for a much greater geographic area of coverage, but you lose transmission density in doing so. This means you can transmit over larger areas, but you can transmit far less data.

These bands operate across a spectrum of bands, and unfortunately, in the US (and in other countries with slow adoption), these bands are often reserved by governmental agencies and corporate interests. Because this spectrum is typically opened up according to need, this has created a sort of "chicken or the egg" situation. In order for the spectrum to be opened up, a business case needs to be made, but these businesses need the spectrum to be open for that business case to be made.

Reuters has an excellent resource that states it succinctly as thus:

“And until there is more demand for 5G, wireless providers are reluctant to spend billions of dollars to upgrade their networks with new antennas and towers. […] Until there is a network, self-driving cars and remote surgeries will not happen. But until there is a business case for 5G networks, wireless providers are slow to spend money building antennas and towers.”

The 5G Network: Improvements That Web Developers Should Be Aware Of

Make no mistake, even with the slower adoption in some areas of the world, 5G is rolling out, and this technology promises significant increases in performance, connectivity, and experience. 5G is a monumental step forward in connectivity, and it promises to bring us forward quite dramatically.

Increased Connectivity Speed

Let's get this out of the way first. Yes, 5G is much faster on average than 4G and other technologies currently running mobile device networking. However, speed is only a part of the equation, as latency is also decreased pretty substantially under 5G. What this means for the average developer is that the network limitations currently planned for and worked around will become the exception as opposed to the norm.

Accordingly, developers should be aware that new network speeds will bring new engagement paradigms. Speed is often touted because it is the "cool" marketing metric, but it brings a unique set of challenges for both the user and the developer, which we will cover shortly.

Additional Bandwidth Availability

One of the biggest gains in 5G is that more bandwidth is made available for data transmission. While this is often discussed in the same space as speed, this is an entirely different beast altogether. Think about it like a set of pipes — speed would be additional pressure pushing behind the water. Bandwidth is changing the pipes entirely from a 6" diameter to a 24" diameter. A change so drastic is bound to carry with it a unique set of circumstances.

Fundamentally, 5G means more data at higher speeds and with lower latency.

Increased Connection Density

A big element of 5G is also the increase in connection density. Connection density is a way of expressing the density of a population of devices. 4G currently has a connection density of 2,000 connected devices over an area of .38 square miles.

5G is a massive upgrade in this sense as well — 5G can connect approximately 1 million devices within the same area. One would think that this results in significantly higher congestion rates, but 5G offers such a significant step up in terms of speed, latency, and bandwidth that these devices should be able to function on this network just as well, if not better, than an equivalent set of devices on 4G.

The Effect of 5G on API Designs

So with all of these benefits, what changes can we expect in terms of API design amidst 5G?

Firstly, API providers need to be ready to meet much higher demands for both data provided and the ability to transform that data. 5G will result in massive gains in latency, speed, and bandwidth, but that means we will also see more devices that want to do more work on the network. Accordingly, more will be required by the average user, and data will likely be transformed in significant ways. Providers will need to provide data transformation systems, and only those providers who adapt to these new needs and desires will truly reap the major benefits of 5G.

API developers will also be faced with a much more robust network that facilitates new experiences, and as this becomes more common, users will come to expect this. Think about the way the internet was in the late 1990s. Highly limited in scope and ability, the internet of 1997 is very different from the internet of 2021. That same sea change may very well take place from 2021 to 2030, and much of the change will be off the back of 5G and its successor, 6G. Accordingly, developers will need to rise to meet this demand on experience.

On a related sentiment, user experience will need to be prioritized even more so. Even if 5G becomes ubiquitous, some users will still be on older systems and technologies. For these users, you will still need to provide an adequate experience. Think about how mobile and desktop currently creates a gap in experience that, nonetheless, needs to be met equally. This will be true of 5G and non-5G users, and developers need to prepare for this reality.

Augmented and virtual reality is likely to become more commonplace through this adoption, and because of this, data will need to be made more parseable. It's not going to be adequate to simply provide this data in the way you best see fit — the adoption of solutions such as GraphQL, which allows the client to retrieve data in the format best suited for its purposes, will likely become critical to the future of 5G network interactions.

What About the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, will be drastically affected by this movement to 5G. Providers are very quickly going to find that their devices are no longer hampered by the network connectivity and reliability constraints that previously controlled the development of the IoT. As such, innovation is going to become the name of the game.

Think of it this way — 5G as a solution is not just limited to cellular networks and big telecoms. 5G can also be a local technology in the same way that any network standard is. Manufacturers, supply chain systems, logistics organizations, and more can all deploy their own local 5G networks and leverage this incredible network to greater heights. What could a factory, for instance, do with 1 million devices per .38 square miles? How many quality control gates, scanning systems, and AI-driven modules, could be utilized with such a technology?

This will require innovation not just in application but also in support infrastructure. The system will need new languages, new protocols, and new frameworks to work correctly. Thus, IoT providers and developers will need to adapt their solutions to an increasingly connected and high-demand world.

Conclusion

The world is changing, and 5G will be a big part of that. How providers adopt their tech stacks to 5G will dictate future user experiences.

Services will either be made or broken by their response to this new sea change in connectivity. As such, developers would benefit from getting ahead of the curve as much as possible.

What do you think about 5G? What does the rollout look like in your country? Let us know in the comments below!