By Bjorn Biel M. Beltran, Special Features Writer

GOING from the age of homing pigeons and the telegraph to the age of virtually instant face-to-face interaction in the span of a century, there is perhaps no better symbol of technology’s explosive growth in the information age than telecommunications.

Where there was once slowness and inefficiency in sending and receiving messages, now there is a constant upgrading of fast and and secure communication. Companies like Apple pride themselves on the security and privacy of their messaging apps, while the ubiquity of other services ensure that anyone can be contacted instantly anytime, anywhere with an internet connection, even astronauts orbiting the earth on the International Space Station.

“Technology, media, and telecommunications (TMT) companies have been at the epicenter of the change wrought by Industry 4.0. They have pioneered many of the smart technologies and high-speed connectivity at its core, making digital innovation possible,” international services firm Deloitte wrote in a report on its website.

With so many technologies proliferating, it is difficult to imagine what the future of telecommunications will look like at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. How much more can technology improve from the information age, with its immense economic and sociopolitical impact?

Let us count the ways.

Mobile internet has virtually transformed all facets of contemporary life. Its effects can be felt in the entertainment industry with the advent of streaming audio and video, the financial sector with fintech and mobile banking apps, food service through online food delivery, and transportation in the form of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Grab.

In an always-online world, the demand for faster, more affordable, more convenient internet services grows along with it. Enter 5G technology.

The International Mobile Telecommunications-2020 (IMT-2020 Standard), the set of standards and requirements issued by The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), set the course for the developing technology in the coming year. The rollout of 5G is expected to connect people, things, data, applications, transport systems, and cities in smart-networked communication environments through a network capable of supporting a huge amount of data much faster, more reliably, on an extremely large number of devices, and processing very high volumes of data with minimal delay.

Through 5G, innovative applications such as smart homes and buildings, smart cities, 3D video, work and play in the cloud, remote medical surgery, virtual and augmented reality, and massive machine-to-machine communications for industry automation and self-driving cars are not only much more feasible but much easier. Particularly after such technologies were challenged by the limitations of 3G and 4G networks.

According to the ITU, 5G technology promises to accelerate the achievement of all of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from affordable and clean energy to zero hunger.

“Expectations of 5G are high, with many assuming it will deliver a transformative promised land — an improved end-user experience, new applications, new business models and new services riding swiftly on the back of gigabit speeds, improved network performance and reliability,” the ITU wrote in its Setting the Scene for 5G: Opportunities & Challenges report.

“5G networks and services, standing as they do on the shoulders of successful 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks, are forecast by independent economic studies to deliver very significant economic gains.”

In the Philippines, the technology is on its way with Globe Telecom, Inc.’s launch of its fixed service Air Fiber 5G, making it the first provider to launch a 5G-powered service in the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and third in Asia after South Korea and Japan.

An interconnected society in the era of 5G may enable an even bigger role for the technologies currently dominating tech. The cloud, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence, Deloitte wrote, are expected to have the largest impact on telecommunications organizations over the next five years as emerging specialized technologies — such as quantum computing and nanotechnology — loom over the horizon.

“Cloud, IoT, AI, and mobile technologies are vital parts of the networked physical-digital universe, helping organizations collect and process vast volumes of data and become smarter digital enterprises. IoT-enabled sensors take measurements and generate streams of data. Mobile technologies have an important role to play, too,” Deloitte wrote in its report.

“Smartphones, tablets, and wearable devices can function as sensors, collecting and sending diverse data such as location, acceleration, images, video, activity information, and even health measurements like heart rate and blood sugar. And mobile technologies provide connectivity — not just for phones but for devices such as manufacturing equipment, home appliances, office whiteboards, wearables, and medical tablets.”

The Internet of Things, particularly, can open the door to limitless possibilities. As the convergence of multiple technologies, including real-time analytics, machine learning, commodity sensors, and embedded systems, IoT can foster further innovation in the smart ecosystem space, particularly in the development of smart homes, buildings, and cities.

Through embedded sensors, artificial intelligence, machine-to-machine communication, and real-time analytics, IoT can potentially, for instance, detect when your smart car is running low on fuel or is in need of repair, automatically and autonomously send it to a refueling station, show you routes to the nearest service station, or even contact your manufacturer to send a mechanic — all without any human input. Such ecosystems could be expanded to smart cities with massive network infrastructures, monitoring entire transport systems and utility grids, with machines communicating with each other through a vast network to ensure efficiency, security, comfort, and convenience.

“The connected universe is getting smarter, with developers infusing AI capabilities such as machine learning into IoT platforms and applications, into cloud services, and even into physical devices at ‘the edge’ of the network. AI and IoT are a synergistic pair. [The International Data Corp.] predicts that by 2019, “all effective” IoT efforts will make use of AI, since data alone has limited value unless it’s mined for insight,” Deloitte added.

“Conversely, AI thrives upon volumes of data: As AI systems ingest new data and scenarios, they evolve and improve over time, inferring new knowledge. A virtuous cycle emerges: Connected devices and systems generate data, and that data is analyzed for insights that are piped back into the systems to drive informed decision-making and intelligent, autonomous action.”

The value that this kind of technology can deliver to enterprises and customers is immense, with IoT and mobile technology enabling completely new revenue streams and service-based delivery models, as well as more efficient operations. The role of AI, by extension, will become an integral part of business operations, essential for better decision making and the development of smarter products. Cloud computing, which before was utilized chiefly for the purpose of lowering costs and increasing efficiency, can now be used to rapidly innovate products and services, build new business models, and reinvent customer relationships.

Just like when over the top (OTT) media services, livestreaming services like Spotify and Netflix, revolutionized the entertainment industry, augmented and virtual reality is predicted to rise in a more interconnected world.

The World Economic Forum projects simulated environments generated by AR and VR technologies to transform a variety of industries, from straightforward applications like video games and virtual tourism to medical research and journalism.

Through virtual reality headsets or multi-projected environments to generate realistic images, sounds and other sensations that simulate a user’s physical presence in a virtual environment, VR systems can simulate detailed maps of the cells in a cancer tumor that can be explored and analyzed, or else, as with the New York Times’ VR mobile app, experience “a new kind of video that gives you a sense of depth in every direction so you feel like you’re actually there.”

Simulated reality, however, poses new and uniquely fraught challenges to society at large.

For instance, it is no secret to Filipinos that online gambling sites and virtual casinos have sparked an explosive influx in Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs). Chinese nationals seeking workarounds for China’s gambling ban have flocked to burgeoning gambling hubs in the Philippines, prompting an increase in Chinese workers to cater to them and driving up residential and office property prices in the process. The demand is expected to drive gambling revenue in the Philippines to $4.1 billion this year, up from just over $1 billion in 2016, according to the government.

Proxy betting, a practice that uses computer tablets and headsets to communicate with gamblers watching games from abroad on cameras, contributes a sizeable chunk to these numbers. Interestingly, the practice is outlawed in most countries because of the anonymous nature of the remote gambling, but it is legal in the Philippines.

That so much money can be found in offering a method of circumventing national law speaks to how much potential a purely digital world far removed from national boundaries and regulations can offer. Imagine how emergent technology can play a part in all of that, for better or for worse.