How super-fast 5G networks will enable innovation

Insight

The forthcoming 5G standard promises a step change in the speed and reliability of mobile networks. With super fast round trip times and support for hundreds of times the number of connected devices, 5G will enable the proliferation of lightweight smart machines and accelerate the fourth industrial revolution.

In my last post for Future Thinking I gave a broad overview of the fourth industrial revolution, which brings together numerous already existing technologies and networks them together with vast cloud computing power to automate huge chunks of industrial and commercial processes. In it, I made reference to a few emergent technologies and trends which will enable Industry 4.0 and in this post I’ll take a closer look at what might be the biggest enabler of all: high-speed mobile data networks.

What is 5G?

5G, following in the footsteps of 4G, is the next generation of wireless technology. Under the naming convention, 1G refers to the first analogue mobile networks, while 2G took wireless networks digital, 3G brought megabit-speed internet to mobile devices. 4G, the standard that most of our mobile phones are using now (depending on where you are) achieves download speeds measured in hundreds of megabits.

5G will progress wireless networks in three crucial dimensions: it’ll be much faster, with average download speeds measured in gigabits; it’ll bring lower latency (the time it takes for a packet of data to get from one point to another) so that connections will be more responsive and more reliable; and it’ll allow for the connection of many more devices at once.

The bodies responsible for agreeing the 5G standards are looking to achieve 20Gbps speeds and 1ms latency.

Enabling the proliferation of smart devices

You thought you were amazed at being able to stream the latest box set on your commute home? This is another level entirely. It means data being picked up, sent to the cloud, processed and returned in less than 10 milliseconds.

It’ll mean wearable technology can become smaller, more affordable and vastly more powerful.

This has ramifications which go far beyond how smooth your mobile Netflix experience is. As well as allowing hundreds of times the number of connected devices that 4G can offer, 5G also has much lower power requirements – we’re possibly talking month-long battery cycles for our phones and battery lives of up to 10 years for low-power, machine-type devices.

Combine this with the seemingly infinite processing power available in the cloud and the possibilities are endless. Think driverless cars, drones and other kinds of autonomous vehicles. Anything that’s required to constantly assess what’s going on around it and make adjustments accordingly requires a lot of computing power, which is unlikely to be available in the kind of low-power processor which these devices will have on-board, making high-speed, low-latency mobile networks crucial to their proliferation.

Beyond the autonomous vehicles that will revolutionise transport and logistics, 5G will also allow for many more devices to become smart outside of the home or workplace. There’ll be capacity to have sensors which can send data to the cloud attached to almost anything – clothes, packaging, even food. Not only can the visibility of a company’s supply chain be vastly increased, but, coupled with AI, there’s the potential for them to become semi-autonomous, self-correcting systems.

It’ll mean wearable technology can become smaller, more affordable and vastly more powerful. In healthcare, the capacity for connected care will be dramatically improved, with patients real-time stats being conveyed and monitored at all times via discrete devices.

Thinking beyond business, the ramifications for government could be huge. Smart cities with intelligent infrastructure, utilities and transport systems suddenly becomes a reality.

When will 5G networks arrive?

Much work needs to be done to prepare for its introduction: unlike previous generations of wireless networks which relied on large, dispersed cell towers, 5G networks will be much denser, with many small cells, possibly resembling home routers, located just metres apart. This is very capital-intensive for telcos, making the role of policy makers crucial.

Expect to see mass roll out of 5G begin in 2021, with mass adoption in 2022/23.

Across Europe, the spectrum of frequencies on which mobile data networks operate are publicly owned (or at least, controlled by national governments) and parts of the spectrum are auctioned off to service providers. In the past, the high cost of securing frequency ranges on which to run their networks has left teclos with little spare cash to use for actually rolling out service provision – this was particularly acute with the introduction of 3G networks, where the huge sums spent on rights delayed roll out for years.

The French government has recently had to intervene in its own market, forcing French telcos to plug gaps in 4G coverage due to years of under-investment. With such little competition in mobile operator markets (the UK’s, widely seen as the most competitive, has just four operators), with profitability falling for years, and large corporate debt piles to service, this kind of capital expenditure looks very risky.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Even in the UK, where the roll out of 4G in the UK has been abysmally patchy (the average Brit can only access 4G 65 per cent of the time), mobile operators EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three have just forked out £1.4bn on 5G bandwidth and, at the moment, both Nokia and Ericsson are working with mobile carriers on the roll out of their 5G networks. In October 2017, the City of London switched on their 400 mini towers, providing WiFi coverage throughout the square mile. Those mini cell towers will be used to run 5G trials in the near future.

A source who works for one of the professional organisations involved in agreeing interoperability standards for the transport layer of 5G networks has told me that standards have not yet been agreed. He believes mass roll out in 2020 seems ambitious with 2021/22 being more realistic. The only thing he feels can speed this up is if Huawei go it alone and end up being the defacto standard, but I suspect Ericsson and Nokia will have something to say about that.

In conclusion, expect to see mass roll out of 5G begin in 2021, with mass adoption in 2022/23. So, we’ll have to wait a little while, but the impact will be profound once it’s here.