What are 5G networks for? Promising a download rate of 20Gbps and upload of 10Gbps, consumers may get superfast downloads to their homes, 4K and VR streaming, and even wireless residential broadband, but what’s in it for businesses? 

Firstly, 5G is not for mobile phones, but it will involve wireless. 5G will use the same radio frequencies as current 4G LTE networks, but will also use much higher frequencies with much shorter wavelengths – millimetre waves (mmWave) offer incredibly high bandwidths, but only over very short distances.

So expect fibre optic cables to be the backbone of next-gen 5G networks, but with all-new fixed line wireless routers in offices, industrial plants and command centres to replicate fibre speeds.

“We will have fibre-like performance available on the go,” says Simon Bryant, Associate Director at Futuresource Consulting. “It's driven by new chipsets for devices and base stations, and network construction, which will see much greater incorporation of multiple technologies and hand-off between cellular, Wi-Fi and other low-power wide area network (LPWAN) solutions,” he adds. 5G is about integration and capacity as much as it is about speed.

There’s a race on to start 5G services

Coping with capacity

With demand for broadband skyrocketing and cellular networks congested, high capacity broadband needs new technology; fibre optic lines can't be built everywhere. Cue 5G, which will involve both fixed and wireless networks.

Although 5G will one day be a software-defined network for all applications, it's likely not going to be all-pervasive for a long time. It's going to be targeted, and it will rely as much on increasing the scale of fibre optic networks as it will on superfast Wi-Fi routers.

“5G makes available much more spectrum, which will move the axis closer to the customer, because when you move to mmWave you have to be very close to the customer,” says Thaddeus Arroyo, CEO of Business Solutions and International at AT&T. “So how we build our networks will change – it's as much about capacity and latency as it is about employing a much denser, but smaller grid, with smaller cells.”

Gigabit LTE routers like the Netgear Nighthawk M1 will be a stopgap on the road to 5G

Cloud computing

5G will completely change how the cloud is used, what it can do, and even how it's conceptualised. “We're going to see a network that's even more relevant than it is today,” says Arroyo, explaining that existing networks have enabled compute to reside on the cloud, so cease to be a constraining asset. “We have seen companies move workloads to the cloud, and the network became more important … if you look at empowering these applications with 5G, the network goes to the next level.”

Real-time robotics will be enabled by a quicker cloud

With 5G, all kinds of functions now carried out in devices and machines will be kicked into the cloud. Most of that is down to a massive reduction in latency – when a device sends data to the cloud, it currently takes a little time for it to get a reply. 5G changes 10-80 milliseconds to less than a millisecond wait time. Driverless cars will be able to instantly communicate with each other, and also command centres, not to mention smart city infrastructure.

AR and VR at work

With the advent of 5G, it's possible that smartphones will wither as untethered wearables become more prominent. 5G networks’ promise not of 20Gbps, but of 1,000Mbps connections everywhere, will certainly help popularise wearables of all kinds at work, but 5G will be capable of some stunning new applications.

“VR will enable people to be more efficient at work, it's not just about entertainment,” says Kai Sahala, Head of Radio Marketing, Mobile Networks, Nokia. “We are looking at use-cases where an expert or an engineer is going to fix a machine, and he can get much more information from the back office.”

3D renderings, schematics and possibly even holographic images could be sent to head-mounted displays, which are already beginning to be used in industrial settings.

“5G brings to VR the ability to see what is in front of you and put it in the virtual world, and you can turn a physical world into a virtual environment into a virtual world – it's merged reality,” says Julie Coppernoll, VP, Marketing, Intel Corporation.

“With the Intel RealSense camera a doctor could see the patient, but in the virtual world they could see the scans, the X-rays, or another doctor talking to them, but they're still in the world with that patient,” she adds. “With 5G we can get the video transferred quickly and make it all live, which is so hard to do now.”

Virtual meetings and remote touch

5G's ability to deal in high resolution images, and its sub-millisecond latency, could push videoconferencing into another dimension. Some even suggest that holographic conference calls could be enabled by 5G, though the real advance will be instant communications.

“If you're meeting someone in a virtual space and you're doing something that requires a response from the other person, then the speed needs to be very fast because that's how the human brain works – you need that kind of response from your movements,” says Sahala. The same goes for remote surgery – and that's where remote touch comes in.

Autonomous cars will be enabled by 5G

Touch and telesurgery

“When people talk about remote surgery, they don’t mean a surgeon in London operating on someone in Alice Springs, they mean wirelessly doing remote surgery while in the same room,” says Henry Calvert, Senior Director, Head of Network 2020 at the GSMA, who’s talking about robotically-assisted surgery using machines to make incisions.

“It takes one surgeon to put the machine into the patient and to keep the patient alive, and another to do the work remotely from a console,” he explains. That sense of touch is only possible via 5G, which could herald a new era of haptic communications, and a tactile internet.

An IoT that can grow

“A cornerstone of 5G will be the massive amount of devices that are going to be connected,” says Sahala. For now, the IoT doesn't need 5G. It's not about throughput, it's about potentially millions of sensors and devices sending tiny amounts of data back to the cloud, but there will come a time when 5G will be an essential part of the IoT.

“Within the next few years the IoT will grow and it will need 5G, which is capable of supporting tens of thousands of devices per square kilometre,” says Sahala. That kind of density just isn't sustainable using current IoT infrastructure.

High-speed wireless broadband will become possible with 5G

Smaller cells and targeted 5G

5G means smaller cells since mmWaves don't travel far. However, that means a denser network is required, and the speed of the connections will be such that swapping between base stations or routers will be instant. No more dropped calls while travelling at high speed, and – at last – reliable, fast internet on trains.

That could significantly impact any business whose employees travel a lot, or work while on their way to or between offices. But it could also mean, at first, that a big office only has wireless 5G in a critical area where superfast speeds are required. “5G will initially have spotty coverage, so it will be used for specific use-cases in urban areas, and maybe for specific facilities, and coverage will gradually improve,” says Sahala.

The 5G future

Up to 20Gbps speeds on mobile devices may sound impressive, but the objective for network operators will be to get data onto fibre as soon as possible. However, the real vision behind 5G is to connect everything to everything in real-time, creating instant data links and a burgeoning IoT.

“I expect that many use-cases will not be envisioned or realised until we have this level of 5G capability available to drive development of new ideas,” says Bryant. “These things may seem unnecessary to our current technology and way of thinking, but things will change just as they have with terabytes of storage, the development of the cloud, LTE and more.” 

5G is just another technology transition, nothing more than an inevitable next-generation of mobile communications. But when people talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 5G is the enabling technology.

  • We’ve also highlighted 10 upgrades the Industrial IoT badly needs