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5G, explained

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Most Americans have yet to use a 5G-connected device, but the next-generation cellular network is already generating buzz. Ads and headlines tout a 5G revolution that will change the way people live and work, through unprecedented digital speeds, reduced lag, and better connectivity for a broader range of devices. Some say it’ll spur a fourth industrial revolution.

With experts expecting 5G to become widely available in the next few years, the full business impact of the network has yet to be seen. What’s clear is that it’s ripe with opportunity for fields as varied as entertainment, manufacturing, health care, and retail. Successful enterprises will tap 5G to boost “internet of things” applications, virtual and augmented reality, and larger-scale robot and drone deployments.

“What does this mean? It depends who you are,” said MIT electrical engineering and computer science professor Muriel Médard. For users, which includes most businesses, “it’s likely you’ll get a rich set of offerings, and you’ll get better coverage,” said Médard, who leads the Network Coding and Reliable Communications Group at MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronics.

As the first 5G symbols begin to pop up on cellphones, it’s time for businesses to think about how to harness the possibilities. “If you’re a business leader looking to use this network to provide some new services for customers, or if [you] would like to create some new value that’s not possible today … all of this is possible with 5G,” said Athul Prasad, a student in the MIT Sloan Fellows program who is on sabbatical from Nokia, where he was the head of 5G business modeling and analytics.

Companies that embrace 5G early stand to gain, said Diego Fernandez Bardera, a principal consultant at Ericsson who focuses on 5G and the internet of things. Some 73% of 4G first-movers grew their market share after their 4G launch, and a 5G first-mover likewise will benefit, said Bardera, a graduate of the MIT Sloan Fellows program. “I urge organizations and the whole ecosystem, from industry partners to universities, to have discussions across business and operational domains to better understand how 5G will transform their industries.”  

Here’s what businesses need to know to set themselves on a course for 5G success:

From 1G to 5G

5G is the fifth-generation cellular network, as formally defined by global standards agencies. New networks have emerged roughly every 10 years since 1980, when 1G came on the scene with large cellphones that only made phone calls. Later, 2G introduced messaging, 3G brought access to the internet, and 4G, which emerged around 2009, brought a leap in data download speeds, allowing users to do things like stream movies on mobile devices.

The official definition of 5G specifies higher speeds and lower latency — the lag time between when a device asks for information and when it receives it, Médard explained. The network will use higher-frequency radio waves in addition to the range of frequencies already used, and will work with smaller, more closely distributed wireless access points instead of large, dispersed cell towers.

5G is also expected to include a suite of hybrid technologies that will facilitate seamless transitions between different Wi-Fi networks or from cellular networks to Wi-Fi, and allow networks to more easily take advantage of unused extra bandwidth.

5G should allow for higher connectivity — that is, more devices connected to a network — and significantly higher download speeds. Speed isn’t the only improvement, though.

Consistency will be key, Médard said. 5G will allow small, consistent amounts of data to be accessed on a regular basis. “If you have needs such as streaming, gaming, even more if you go to something like virtual reality, you don't need a huge amount of data delivered to you at once,” she said. “What you may need is a more modest amount, but reliably delivered, and delivered with shorter delays.”

Experts expect 20 billion connected IoT devices by 2023.

Augmented reality — overlaying virtual information over a live view of the world — and virtual reality both need reliable, low latency networks to be effective, which makes them prime use cases for 5G. (Beyond being inconvenient, high latency while using virtual reality devices can cause motion sickness.)

Shorter range radio waves and cell towers that cover smaller areas will also improve location tracking. That opens the way for businesses to use geolocation to their competitive advantage, though some advocates have pointed out it also raises privacy concerns.

Speedier and more reliable communication and reduced lag times will enable new IoT use cases that are more widely and easily deployed, according to industry experts. While some companies are already using connected sensors in the field, 5G is expected to bring the internet of things into the mainstream with new uses and massive connectivity.

Experts expect 20 billion connected IoT devices by 2023 — representing millions of usually low-cost devices with long battery lives that can transmit non-delay-sensitive data, Bardera said. 5G will also allow what’s called ultra reliable and low latency connectivity, which is required for critical applications like traffic safety, remote surgery, or precise positioning for industrial uses.

For firms, opportunities abound

Industries considered most likely to be transformed by 5G include media and entertainment, manufacturing, retail, health care, hospitality, finance, and shipping and transportation. And the new network stands to enable or improve technologies as far-ranging as holograms, artificial intelligence and machine learning, industrial robots, drones, and smart cities, buildings, and homes.

“When you think about 5G you should think, ‘Well, what doesn’t really work on 4G?'” said Nicola Palmer, senior VP of technology and product development at Verizon, who spoke on a 5G panel at the 2019 MIT Platform Summit.

For example, computer vision, augmented reality, and virtual reality for health care don’t work on 4G networks, she noted. “How do you really tie into those capabilities in a way that creates value for enterprise and consumers alike?” 5G is a key part of the answer. Bardera said organizations approaching 5G should first assess its potential in relation to their specific industry, business, and market. From there they can select and prioritize the most suitable use cases in terms of business impact, time to market, and investment required.

Some industries are already test-driving 5G internet of things ideas for business purposes. For example, in the oil and gas industry, a Houston telecommunications company recently partnered with Nokia to bid on bringing 5G to several oil and gas fields. Other companies are developing “smart harbors” in Germany and China that include automated ship-to-shore crane lifts and sensors with real-time traffic monitoring. A mobile company in South Korea is at work building a 5G infrastructure for a smart traffic system in Seoul. Ericsson has embraced new industrial IoT uses, such as increased assembly and testing efficiency at a plant in Estonia through the use of augmented and virtual reality, Bardera said. And Nokia and ARENA2036 have announced an automotive research partnership at a factory in Germany to validate 5G use cases. 

5G will also make it easier to upgrade facilities or establish new plants. “Factories tend to have a lot of wires, which limits their mobility,” said Prasad. Wired factories are costly to upgrade, he said, but those costs will diminish with wireless sensors.

In entertainment, a 2019 Deloitte Mobile Trends survey predicted 5G could have a large impact on digital entertainment, especially among younger consumers, who said they plan to use 5G to consume media with virtual and augmented reality and that they’d likely play more mobile video games using 5G. Virtual and augmented reality with 5G can be used to train surgeons, truck drivers, and other employees in high-risk professions, as well as for videoconferencing, improved online and physical retail experiences, tourism, and education.

And on the farm, 5G innovations include sensors that control a smart feeding system and open curtains depending on the weather. And a herd of dairy cows in rural England were given 5G-connected devices on their collars that connected to a robotic milking system.

One cutting-edge technology that won’t rely on 5G is autonomous vehicles, according to MIT senior lecturer the former director of corporate strategy at General Motors Co. Pudar said vehicles must be able to make driving decisions without relying on external connections, which may or may not be available. But 5G connectivity will allow vehicles to collect data about car maintenance, road conditions, weather and traffic that can lead to higher quality maps and congestion planning, he said. 

When to expect 5G

 

A 5G forecast released last year predicted 5G connections around the world will grow from 10 million in 2019 to more than 1 billion in 2023.

5G is already available in limited areas in the United States and worldwide. Experts estimate that 77 service providers worldwide launched 5G commercially by the end of 2019, Bardera said, with coverage and availability varying by country or region. In South Korea, the world’s largest 5G market, there are more than 3 million subscribers, he said.

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, the four largest U.S. carriers, have all rolled out some  5G service to consumers, mostly in select areas of certain cities, and all of the carriers promise more is on the way.

5G devices are slowly coming out, with expensive 5G cellphones for sale. Industry experts predict that Apple could introduce its first 5G-capable phones in 2020. Major Android equipment manufacturers have announced flagship 5G mobile devices, with many already shipping.

73% of 4G first-movers grew their market share after their 4G launch.

5G also requires infrastructure, including the installation of new wireless access points that are closer together. A host of companies are also working on providing 5G hardware and equipment. The U.S. government has cited concerns that Chinese technology company Huawei, which is providing 5G infrastructure in several countries, could give the Chinese government a “back door” to the networks and access to data and information. The United States has lobbied other countries not to use Huawei, though the United Kingdom recently agreed to have the company build part of its 5G network.

There are other concerns, perhaps perceived, to overcome. Critics are raising alarms about radio waves causing cancer and other health problems. Some cities have resisted the installation of 5G poles, and politicians have introduced resolutions urging formal study into its health implications. But a widely cited study that says 5G might be harmful has been debunked.

5G will boost security in some ways, with encrypted data, segmented networks, and user authentication, but also has security vulnerabilities, including potential spying and attacks. The increase in connected devices also creates more targets and attacks on vital connected systems could become more chaotic and consequential.

Experts are estimating a widespread rollout between 2021 and 2024. “I think it’s dependent on forward-looking industries to lean in,” Palmer said. “The examples are out there … leaning in will dictate how fast it happens.”

 

Prasad agreed. “I think that by 2021 that's kind of the timeline where we are thinking that it would be getting more and more wide-scale,” he said.

What’s certain is that 5G is on the way — with 6G already waiting in the wings — which means businesses should start preparing for what it might bring. Just as Uber, Netflix, and Spotify were enabled by 4G’s use of data and streaming, new or established companies could prove to be the winners in a 5G world, according to Prasad.

“It’s kind of a low-risk investment,” Prasad said, pointing out that the mobile ecosystem enabled by 4G created around $4 trillion in new economic value. “I think 5G could create even more value.”