News | Opinion | Intelligence | Press Releases | Updates

Virtual reality in the remote office over 5G? Dream on

5G is a game-changer, but don’t be distracted by the speculation about augmented reality offices for remote working. Focus on what matters – better conventional networks and private 5G for demanding use cases.

Published in Connect-World Europe II (July 2021)

Sanjeev Verma is CEO of Squire Technologies and a widely-recognised leader within the global telecoms industry. With more than 20 years’ experience, his activities span multiple markets and leading operators from around the world, from Africa, Asia, Polynesia, LatAm, to the Caribbean, as well as UK and Europe. As the telecoms industry has advanced Sanjeev has kept abreast of changing technologies and Squire Technologies now offer SS7 to VoIP to VoLTE / LTE and now to 5G.

5G will enable commercial projects to achieve results that were not before possible and Sanjeev has a wealth of expertise on how this new technology will see our smart cities, offices and even the cars we drive become more intelligent and enable society to live a more streamlined lifestyle. Sanjeev believes that 5G will offer connectivity on a new scale where IoT enabled devices will create a futuristic new world where everything will become automated or controlled via a smart phone or device.

After completing a Bachelor’s degree in Electronics & Communications Engineering, Sanjeev began his career as an engineer and quickly leveraged his technical expertise to become a strategic advisor to start-ups and established players. Subsequently, he has closed numerous multi-million sterling deals, building an outstanding reputation for both tech savvy and market insight. Through working with the largest operators – such as AT&T, Vodafone, T-Mobile and the like – as well as the smallest, Sanjeev brings a unique perspective to the industry.

5G is touted as a game-changer that will deliver unprecedented performance, enable a wide range of new applications, and unlock huge value for national economies. While some of this will be true, commentators often overlook some important details. This matters – hugely – because 5G is expensive. To ensure that the appropriate returns on investment are secured, we cannot waste time on activities that divert attention, and which are unlikely to deliver the expected dividends.

Take speculation regarding new ways of
working that has grown markedly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. If we can’t come to the office, let’s take the office to us, runs the argument. This is based on the – in fairness, rather interesting idea – that augmented reality could enable home workers to participate in a virtual office landscape.

By using a headset, employees distanced from each other in their home offices, can experience a virtual recreation of their office environment and encounter each other from their respective desks. A sort of professional version of SimCity awaits. Such a solution could, in theory, be enabled by 5G networks, which can support the bandwidth and latency requirements that are necessary in order to make this work. While augmented reality undoubtedly has its uses – think remote healthcare, for example, such speculation is an unhelpful distraction from the real value of 5G.

The virtual reality office is, in fact, a classic example of missing the point completely. There are two key reasons why. First, technical. During the lockdowns, we’ve all adapted to an increased use of conferencing platforms for meetings. We’ve all noticed that performance can be variable. Sometimes, it’s great; on others, much less so. Occasionally, it’s plain awful.

That’s nothing to do with the platform (well, it shouldn’t be) but it’s a lot to do with the connectivity available to us. While many have fibre, others have DSL – which means the problem is more likely to be found in the last mile. We all live in different places and are able to obtain different levels of broadband access. 5G isn’t going to fix that on its own. Here’s why.

Any augmented reality application requires exceptional performance to ensure a consistent experience. One that is real-time demands what we term “low latency”. 5G can deliver this, but to do so, it requires a lot of radio cells. Many, many times more than today’s mobile networks. 

And, 5G coverage is a compromise between the highest performance and the widest coverage. To obtain the best performance – that is the fastest speeds and the lowest latency, we need to use a specific set of radio frequencies – but the problem is that these can’t travel very far. In fact, the maximum range for these is about 500 metres.

So, to deliver the kinds of performance that augmented reality might demand, you need to put a lot of cells very close to the source of demand – in this case, our houses. By contrast, 4G – which is perfectly good enough for most conferencing platforms today – can travel up to 16 km (OK, so performance may not be maintained for that distance, but you can see the point). Sure, there will be 5G coverage available with the required performance characteristics for some, but it won’t be available for all. The alternative is to deploy lots of fibre to the home, but there’s no guarantee that this will actually happen and, generally speaking, 5G is seen as a quick route to delivering high-speed, fibre-like connectivity. The trouble is that this is misleading, because even if you can deploy lots of cells, these still require fibre to connect them back to the servers that process applications (such as our digital twin of the office).

The notion, therefore, that people working from home will simply be able to use 5G to access such services uniformly and replicate some kind of office-like experience via virtual reality headsets and augmented reality is amusing and fun – but it’s nonsense. Worse, it’s a distraction from some much more interesting use cases for 5G and some problems that need to be addressed now.

Second, with the best will in the world, this isn’t going to replicate the office experience at all. People may grumble about being in the office and may have adapted to new ways of working, but let’s not forget there is a whole host of reasons why regular contact in the office is desirable.

Not only does it benefit individuals, who thrive on human contact and interaction, it’s also part of the personality and culture of an organisation – which, in turn, is essential to its strength and success. Everyone has their own experience but to suggest that all of these experiences can be translated into a virtual world is absurd. It is conceivable that a planned meeting might benefit from such an immersive experience, but what about the water cooler? The coffee break? How do you capture all of the myriad of interactions that happen outside the meeting rooms via a virtual environment?

The short answer is: “you probably can’t”. The chit-chat, the review of the most recent blockbuster, last night’s match, all the things that contribute to human relationships cannot be included in a shared online world.

No, the answer to this problem is just better conventional connectivity in the local loop – more fibre, more creative use of wireless LTE to deliver broadband of good enough quality, and more creative packages to support remote workers. A better broadband network, built on today’s technologies would do far more to support remote working and new, hybrid models which see people spending a proportion of their time in their home offices, and the rest in their designated workplace than a utopian vision of workers equipped with virtual reality headsets engaging with colleagues from their kitchens. It is, to be frank, a waste of time and a distraction that helps nobody.

The same argument is applicable to most countries. Coverage and connectivity will trump localised performance for users in general. 5G for consumers is one thing and will, undoubtedly bring benefits, but opera-tors will always be faced with this compromise of coverage vs speed, and the cost calculations that drive network rollout. So, what does that mean for 5G?

Well, operators need to focus on delivering coverage that brings practical benefits. While there are numerous fun applications that will grab headlines and pique the curiosity of analysts and businesses, the truth is that few of these are likely to be game-changing. It’s time for a frank discussion rather than hyping something that will not deliver – for both technical and social reasons.

So, why do we care about 5G? The simple truth is that these very high performance capabilities lend themselves to a host of industrial applications. And, the clue is in the limited range over which the highest speeds can be delivered. The best performing networks will be clustered and localised. There will be hotspots – which, in turn, opens up a whole new market opportunity for stakeholders in the mobile ecosystem: private 5G networks.

The performance that 5G brings will be essential for enabling new applications in factories, mines, ports, hospitals, TV studios, power stations and so on. The best coverage with the best performance will be localised and, in all likelihood, self-contained. 5G enables demanding applications to be delivered without the expense of wires (and the cost of replacing them) but since the best performance requires everything to be closely located (cells in the factory and processors close by connected by fibre), the real 5G network won’t be the consumer offer, delivered nationally, but islands of connectivity that are delivered exclusively for a specific set of users and applications, in a specific location.

The trouble with interesting but ultimately pointless speculation about augmented reality offices is that it builds unhelpful expectations. The press seizes on such notions and presents them as “emerging trends” or trails headlines, such as “coming to an office near you!”. Amidst this bruha-ha, the real value of 5G gets lost and scepticism of the things it can actually – and usefully – do rises.

5G can do many things, but focusing on trivial applications doesn’t help the industry. Let’s focus instead on building out better connectivity today, with an already powerful toolkit, while those who really need 5G can focus on their specific use cases. At the same time, network operators need to focus on their existing customers and investing in networks that, while they have proven to be resilient, deliver highly variable performance for even basic collaboration tools.

Close the digital divide between town and city, invest in extended broadband networks and introduce new quality-backed offers. Sure, 5G is developing fast, but it’s not needed in the traditional office and it’s unlikely to help remote workers, dispersed in often rural locations.

Connect-World magazines
“Providing thought leadership for ICT decision makers”

Connect-World Europe II (2021), published in July, copyright, InfoComms Media ltd.