We’re often said to be in the midst of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – a fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one another. While AI is often credited as being the centrepiece of this new chapter in human development, to think only in these terms is somewhat reductive. A vitally important driver of the next wave of technology and technological innovation is the fifth-generation wireless technology, 5G.
5G has in some ways been mis-sold. Just about everything you’ve probably heard about it points towards higher data speeds and how you’ll be able to download videos or update your apps much more quickly. That’s all well and good, I suppose. 5G is expected to provide 10Gbps data rate, representing a 100x improvement over the 4G networks, and that’s unquestionably something to shout about.
But the true value of 5G is about so much more than this. What makes 5G exceptional isn’t its speed, but its unprecedented impact on latency. What 5G does, and what it does so incredibly well, is latency – reducing this to under than 2 milliseconds. That alone is an unbelievably powerful prospect.
The dawn of a network that is essentially latency-free could very well be the spark for an explosion of technology and technological innovation. With devices interacting and exchanging data in real-time, the foundations are laid for radical improvements to current technologies bottlenecked by the current network capacity, as well as for the invention of totally new technologies.
Autonomous vehicles and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication, requiring high throughput and extremely minimal latency to function with accuracy, will be one notable beneficiary of the growth of 5G. So-called “tactile internet” tools – which aim to achieve real-time human-machine interaction – are another.
Other examples of potential applications include multiplayer mobile gaming, factory robots, drone navigation, high resolution streaming and conferencing, virtual reality, and augmented reality. These are all areas where today's 4G networks struggle or can't manage at all.
In many cases, these applications will directly drive the growth of an emergent IoT ecosystem. As a recent Gartner report suggests, there are already 20.4 billion connected devices in operation globally this year, and that number will emphatically rocket as 5G becomes the networking standard.
Needless to say, this IoT ecosystem will create a huge volume of data, and considerations will need to be made about how to apply that data in useful ways, and just as importantly, how to process it all. In all likelihood, much of this data will be processed locally at the ‘edge’ of the networks; at the 5G base stations rather than central servers. In theory, this should lead to much faster response times for computational tasks like cars figuring out the location of other nearby cars.
Interestingly, but not unexpectedly, big tech players like Microsoft and Amazon are now putting a lot of energy into this area of edge computing, exploring new network designs to optimise data flow in and around cities and enterprise sites. These companies are also building out and refining their edge products and services. Amazon has offerings like CloudFront Infrastructure and AWS IoT for the Edge, and Microsoft has its Azure Stack Edge and Azure IoT Edge, for example.
Strategy is essential
At times, it can seem like 5G is a technology of the distant future. And admittedly, based on the rollout of 4G and the time it took for this to fully materialise, major changes to the way businesses operate won’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, businesses should be under no illusions that the ball is rolling in this space, and what 5G offers is worth paying attention to.
5G will arrive only gradually and in phases, of course, but it is markedly different from the 4G networks that we’re familiar with today. Dramatic benefits will eventually be realised, and in time, corporate networks may need to be entirely rethought and rebuilt from the ground up.
Many businesses are already exploring private wireless 5G networks that offer fast and high capacity connectivity to employees, and new opportunities to automate processes across the enterprise. Opportunities will only expand in the coming years, with new ways to connect with customers, collect and analyse data, and deploy apps across the enterprise.
At the very least, it’s worth thinking ahead. Businesses need a clear strategy to capitalise on what will inevitably arrive. Those who act now will reap the rewards of doing so, emerging as one of the disruptors in the incipient 5G world.