By Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas
In the first half of this past year, the world surpassed 429 million people connected with 5G, as user connections took off across 182 5G networks. With 5G connections surging 67% in North America over the previous quarter, it’s clear that we’ve reached an inflection point, as consumers and businesses begin to unlock what 5G can deliver.
But the true power of 5G has not yet even begun to be fully tapped. New possibilities and use cases are just starting to be discovered for a technology that has the capability of delivering up to 100 times the data rate as 4G LTE, at much lower network latency, and to over one million devices per square kilometer. While the groundwork has been laid, it’s only now that innovators and enterprises are discovering new ways to harness the incredible power of 5G networks.
5G will be the foundational for a new era of innovation. Already, North American operators have opened centers for 5G innovation, like the 5G Open Innovation Lab and 5G Innovation Studio, which put together inventors and entrepreneurs with 5G experts to unleash the new and exciting opportunities that this technology can bring forward. We are starting to see impactful uses being explored, such as those in the 5G Food Resiliency Project which utilize 5G-connected sensors and farm vehicles to test precision agriculture and food supply logistics. In some cases, we are also starting to see 5G being used to host real-time holographic meetings with National Basketball Association sports stars.
There are truly opportunities everywhere for virtually every industry and business when it comes to 5G networks.
In 5G Americas’ latest white paper we take a deep dive into how 5G is beginning to impact different enterprises and industries. This white paper is the second in a series focused on the enterprise – the first being “Private and Enterprise Networks” published in August 2021 – while that first piece was focused on the ‘how’ of companies can take advantage of 5G, this white paper looks at what may be possible.
Before we dig into use cases, it might be important to fully grasp the numerous innovations that make 5G much different than previous mobile generations. These include:
- Higher speed and enhanced connectivity through technologies like Massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) and millimeter wave spectrum (mmWave). It can deliver up to 10 gigabits per second data throughput, which is roughly 100 times faster than 4G LTE.
- Dedicated resource management via the concept of ‘network slicing,’ which allows mobile network operators (MNOs) to split their monolithic network into independent slices that can be tailored for given use cases.
- Highly reliable communication through a type of use case called “Ultra Reliable and Low Latency Communications” (URLLC), which enables ‘over-the-air’ latencies of less than 10 milliseconds. This is especially important for a number of key uses, such as in intelligent transportation systems, healthcare delivery, and cloud gaming.
- Improved security via numerous improvements, including a new network function SEPP (Security Edge Protection Proxy), which provides application layer security and protection against eavesdropping.
- A distributed packet core that separates the hardware from the software of a network, much in the same way today’s smartphones put the keypad and apps onto the touchscreen, eliminating the need for very specific kinds of phone hardware – remember bulky handsets? This is called ‘virtualization’ of network functions, allowing routing and processing to happen in different locations of the network through ‘disaggregation.’ This disaggregation and virtualization of the packet core enables spreading of core functions onto the edges of the network to scale deployments, as well as lower latency of interactions with end users.
- Flexible Service Creation and Deployment – Service-Based Architecture (SBA) breaks the legacy point to point connection between network functions and provides a framework where 5G network functions connect with each other in a producer-consumer model.
Now that’s a lot to throw at you. Most people only think of the surface level improvements of 5G (“much faster speed!”) and assume that will be the driving force behind 5G’s greatness.
Not so. There are a lot of 5G improvements under the hood and many of them are designed to integrate into today’s modern IT networks, with tenets of cloud-native computing and edge computing built into the very fabric of 5G. It’s this incredible depth of changes which underscore 5G’s true ability to be the catalyst of innovation that is tying together disparate technologies like AI/ML, Cloud Computing, Edge Computing, VR/AR, Drones, Autonomous Vehicles, and so much more. The flexibility that the 5G architecture provides is at a much deeper, richer level than many realize.
With that said, 5G’s sheer flexibility can sometimes be a stumbling block as enterprises grapple with how to implement it in their businesses. To use a well-understood metaphor, imagine 5G as a vast multi-tool, a sort of Swiss Army Knife, which can serve a nearly limitless variety of uses. This isn’t just the “hammer” of faster speeds, it’s a lot of different things. However, to use a capable multi-tool, enterprises must also examine a variety of different factors, which include:
- Availability of radio frequency spectrum (unlicensed, licensed, and shared), as well as their band – low, mid and high. Do the enterprises have access to it? If not, do they have an operator vendor/partner that does?
- Spectral determinism – do enterprises know exactly how the spectrum will be used and for what purpose?
- Area of coverage across campuses, branch offices or remote sites are critical to understand. What is the intent of this type of coverage? In-building? Or also in-vehicle fleets? Or asset and inventory tracking?
- Cybersecurity demands as the enterprise becomes more open with people, inventory, and data moving in and out.
- Connectivity availability and reliability – what level of connectivity is enough? Should an IoT sensor be ‘always on’? Or is it good enough to just be on intermittently to send a few bytes of data?
- Data sovereignty – or who is responsible for the data that’s being transmitted?
- Ease-of-use – what is the level of technical and digital maturity of the organization? Is there an IT organization that can handle the challenges of complexity?
- Liability, responsibility, and ownership of the infrastructure assets – will this be managed and owned primarily by the enterprise, or will it be managed and operated by a partner or vendor?
With that said, there are several key enterprises that are today already working on some interesting applications for 5G. We’ve barely begun to make the first pass and it’s already starting to look like 5G will have a promising future. Let’s take a look at a few:
- Manufacturing is perhaps the most opportunistic and demanding venue for wireless enhancements which 5G promises to fulfill. Many of the requirements that are being looked at in the manufacturing context can be applied to other venues. In manufacturing, we’ve seen a great collaboration between Korean Telecom (KT) and Hyundai on bringing 5G to construction sites, as well as 5G mitigating risks in the use of collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ at manufacturing locations.
- Mining has been using 4G LTE technology for several years. There are many lessons to be learned from past experiences of these deployments. With 5G, mission critical connectivity is important to ensure worker safety, such as those being tested in Colombia.
- Utilities is a huge emerging sector where 4G LTE and 5G technologies can provide benefits at a tremendous scale. The venues represented in this vertical are like many public sector verticals such as smart cities, smart infrastructure, and transportation. In utilities, they’re particularly useful by connecting smart meters and measuring equipment to ensure smart grid resiliency and reliability.
- Healthcare and Education verticals have emerged as immediate beneficiaries of better wireless and specifically 5G due to COVID-19 pandemic. Operators are exploring the intersection of health and issue with 5G with Fisk University’s first VR campus focusing on remote health learning.
- Gaming is a unique vertical which demands better wireless and has been looked at as a catalyst for adoption of unique aspects of technology such as Multi-Access Edge Compute and AR/VR. Of course, 5G cloud gaming is getting a lot of attention, as it extends the power of cloud computing application stacks that include AI and cognitive apps, language translation, cloud graphics processing, and so many other aspects – right to the mobile device.
As you can see, I’ve barely touched the surface of opportunity here. Indeed, as an industry, *we’ve* barely touched the surface. When you think about all the ways that 5G can extend and be impacted by all of the convergence of modern technologies, there really is no end in sight to what 5G will affect. In that way, 5G truly is the catalyst of limitless innovation.
President, 5G Americas