New technologies are often overhyped in advance, and 5G (being commercially deployed now in the UK’s largest cities) is no exception. Sometimes the claims stack up, other times less so. Given the enormous promise of 5G, there are many - in governments and enterprise, as well as the mobile operators and their equipment suppliers - hoping that 5G truly delivers.
While technology correspondents have been testing 5G downlink speeds in awed comparison with 4G, the greater promise of 5G isn’t faster smartphones, it’s the substantially reduced latency (delay), which is expected to enable a raft of new use cases.
Last night I was privileged to be present at a World’s first, one which demonstrated what reduced latency can do in a use which I certainly didn’t anticipate.
In the ruins of London’s historic Roman Amphitheatre, jazz virtuoso Jamie Callum performed on a piano accompanied by 6 musicians, based 3 each in Bristol and Birmingham. A delay of more than a few milliseconds in the links would have been painfully evident to all 7 of the musicians and to all of the audiences, the three audiences enjoying their location’s contribution to the event, and to those watching via livestream.
I’m delighted to say that everything worked like a dream. While remote musicians appearing on giant video screens isn’t quite the same as having everyone physically together, the effect was astonishing, the musicians perfectly complementing each other, and with more repartee between the musicians than I’ve seen at some more traditional gigs.
What was even more astonishing is that this technical achievement required a combination of EE’s commercial 5G network and academic networks.
It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t recognise the contributions of so many who made last night’s event possible. King’s College London, the Universities of Bristol and Birmingham, the Digital Catapult, EE, Yamaha, and the charity Music For All - which was the genesis of this amazing experience - all MC’d by Simon Saunders, Visiting Professor at Kings.
While bringing together a virtual band in unison doesn’t seem to be quite the game-changer as ensuring that an autonomous vehicle doesn’t crash, what last night‘s event showed was that the latency value add offered by 5G is real, and is going to have many applications. For technology enthusiasts, this is extremely good news; last might it was for music enthusiasts as well. Last night showed that we don’t even have to have a band together in the same place anymore.
Jamie Cullum tinkling the ivories amongst the remains of a Roman Amphitheatre suggests that if Pink Floyd ever wished to recreate their famous Pompeii concert they wouldn’t need to have all of the band members actually in place - or indeed any of them. Perhaps 5G could be a catalyst for groups whose members can no longer stand to be in the same room together to virtually reform. Maybe we will see another concert by The Smiths after all.