Mobile internet connectivity is a perpetually relevant concern in the Philippines. In a country that, as of 2016, had an estimated 26.2 million smartphone users — almost a third of the country’s population — this is hardly surprising.

These days, we access the internet through our smartphones to do pretty much everything, from reading the news to paying our bills. Thus, the demand for consistent and reliable connectivity is ever-present.

Looking back at the past decade, it can be difficult to fathom just how much the Internet has changed our lives. In fact, you could turn the clock back five years and already it would feel like an eternity ago: Smartphone screens were so much smaller. Facebook had only just begun to resemble what it is today. Instagram still had that old brown logo, and “influencer” was still a pejorative word. There was no TikTok to dance for; only Vine, which was already on its way out by then.

The Internet’s role in our everyday lives was drastically different, too. Eight years ago, in 2012—the time commercial LTE became widely available here in the Philippines—Filipinos were only just beginning to embrace the online tools that we now use every day for work, and for simple things like ordering food, paying bills, and managing finances. Streaming services were not yet the cultural giants they are now. So much has changed, and it’s all because of the Internet and how we use it.

So one can only imagine what lies ahead. Every time the Internet evolved, our entire lives evolved with it. What happens when the next phase of the Internet’s evolution arrives?

Well, one could also say that it already has, and so a new acceleration is already under way. Eleven cities in Metro Manila are now 5G-capable, and that figure is expected to rise in the coming years. We’re getting more 5G-capable smartphones, too. What else about our lives might change once large swaths of the country has even better access to the Internet?

In line with this, mobile service providers are looking into bringing fifth-generation (5G) technology to the country, just in time for its expected worldwide adoption in 2020. Expected to be about three times faster than 4G, 5G promises wider coverage, better upload and download speeds, and increased network stability.

5G is also expected to play a critical role in accelerating the development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart technology. From self-driving cars and “smart cities” to automated sensor networks for environmental monitoring and industrial applications, 5G will lay the groundwork for enhanced interconnectivity across the globe.

Preparing for 5G technology

Companies across the globe are currently hard at work on developing 5G-ready devices and networks. Among the first countries expected to implement 5G are the United States, China, and South Korea, with the United Kingdom and other countries to follow suit.

Meanwhile, the Philippines joins Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand on the list of countries currently investing in massive digital transformation. This is based on findings published by MIT Technology Review Insights in association with global tech brand Huawei, after surveying 191 tech executives and conducting interviews across the region from July to August of 2018.

According to two-thirds of the respondents, there are “active conversations” within their organizations revolving around 5G’s expected impact. However, less than half (46%) affirmed that their companies fully understood the benefits of 5G.

Meanwhile, while 65% believe that 5G will meet its target rollout date, nearly a fifth (18%) believe that 2021 is a more realistic date.

Two of the Philippines’ major telecom players have already revealed details about their respective 5G plans. Globe Telecom is planning to roll out 5G services in the country by mid-2019. Meanwhile, Smart Communications is working on establishing its 5G-ready network by 2020.

Implementing 5G systems in the Philippines isn’t a simple matter of updating networks and rolling out new devices, though.

5G challenges in the Philippines
In a recent article, Corning Optical Communications Marketing Manager Paul Ng explained that 5G will require a denser network of cell towers for handling the resulting mobile traffic.

“Currently, mobile networks rely largely on macrocells to handle all connections within a specific geographic area,” wrote Ng. “Increasingly, network operators are deploying low-powered small cells to areas already covered by macrocells to help increase capacity in locations that see high user demand, while avoiding the expense of procuring larger cell sites.”

While 5G networks will likely standardize this heterogenous network setup, they will also require an advanced fiber support infrastructure.

However, only 35% of the MIT survey respondents believe that the current infrastructure in their countries will suffice. Meanwhile, 82% said that the cost of upgrading infrastructure is the biggest obstacle in full 5G adoption. In the Philippines, the cost of infrastructure deployment is generally high, and relevant policies barely exist.

Furthermore, users will need to replace their smartphones with 5G-compatible devices to enjoy the new technology’s benefits. There’s also the risk of overcrowding the frequency range when 5G pops up on the wireless spectrum.

Only one thing is for certain: The successful adoption of 5G in the Philippines will require massive work. Will a year be enough? That remains to be seen.