Date posted: 28 May 2019 – Category: Wi-Fi Services
We stand on the precipice of the next generation in network connectivity – 5G. The technology promises to be 10 to 100 of times faster than 4G, a digital highway wide enough to easily accommodate trillions of megabytes of data.
Some countries like Japan and South Korea have already rolled out 5G. Here in the UK, the cables are just being laid out. Timeline estimates can vary widely, depending on who you ask. Some network operators such as Vodafone and EE may start offering as early as the end of 2019. Less optimistic estimates say the UK is at least 3 years off widespread adoption of 5G. Local government’s National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline programme aims to make 5G accessible to majority of the country by 2027.
But regardless of whether 5G will be knocking on our doors tomorrow or in a couple of years, we need to start setting up today. 5G will bring massive changes to consumer and industrial businesses in the UK. Understanding what needs to be prepared for, and why, is key to planning.
The Internet of Things has transformed even the most mundane things into Internet-enabled devices. Roughly a quarter of Brits now own at least one smart device at home and there will be a staggering 18 billion IoT devices worldwide by 2022, according to telecom company Ericsson.
This means that torrents of consumer behaviour data will be coming from everywhere. Coupled with increasingly powerful CRMs, mobile Point of Sale (mPOS) machines, and eCommerce sites, even the smallest businesses will find themselves facing a growing mountain of retail and consumer information. 5G technology will allow them to tap into and manage these data streams.
Marketers in particular need to pay attention because 5G is set to roll out on mobile phones first, opening a direct line to customers. In an era of hyper personalisation and targeting, the first brands that can get relevant content and offers in front of consumers will win their business, whether online or in-store. Physical brick and mortar shops that do not offer adequate on-site WiFi may be missing out on sales, with 70 percent of UK shoppers more likely to make a purchase if they get free Internet access in stores. And when consumers expect pages to load in less than 2 seconds, businesses can’t afford to lag behind.
The business case for 5G is massive in industrial sectors, particularly in manufacturing and construction.
A 200 to 20-millisecond improvement in latency may be imperceptible to mobile users. But when you’re remotely operating a 3 ton excavator from thousands of miles away, every millisecond is critical. 5G, which essentially eliminates latency as we know it, enables safe and cost-efficient remote work for construction. Companies don’t have to fly in operators anymore. Workers can clear out debris and toxic waste from the relative safety of an offsite location.
We will see even more innovative applications of remote work with the advent of AR and VR in industrial settings. VR apps need a bare minimum latency of 50 ms. Any longer and the lag causes nausea. 5G connections can decrease latency by 10 times, vastly improving user experience and functionality. While the obvious use case for seamless VR would be games and entertainment, a bigger and more lucrative potential lies in using VR for industry and manufacturing. Car manufacturers can cut losses from costly assembly line mistakes, and push out new car models faster with VR-enabled prototyping. Oil companies can save costs in maintenance by using VR headsets to survey offshore, hard to reach sites and arming technicians with the appropriate knowledge and equipment before they visit.
But possibly the biggest business case for 5G in industry is its capacity to bring whole factories and supply chain operations online. Many businesses already make use of smart sensors attached to machinery and equipment for monitoring performance and health. The blazing speeds of 5G can let factories process huge amounts of data from plants and react and adjust in real time. For instance, factory managers can call in preventive repairs for a machine before it fails and affects production. Ericsson’s 5G Production Cockpit, for example, creates a centralised hub for all the data across production factories.
And with smart machines come smarter, more cost-efficient maintenance. Large over the air updates will be more feasible, allowing businesses to update equipment on the field without shipping them out to repair sites or sending technicians to do the task machine by machine.
Past generations of network connectivity relied on hulking cell towers to broadcast signals. To reliably support the high volume demands of 5G, we’re going to need more access points to close the gap, and erecting additional 200 to 400 foot cell towers isn’t feasible in many areas, especially in cramped cities that represent the most voracious appetite for data.
The current approach is to build a digital membrane of smaller but powerful cell sites called small cells. These cells are affixed to urban structures like light poles and buildings, and are the ones who feed back to huge radio towers. While significantly smaller, they are no less powerful, and can reliably serve users within their assigned location, maximising coverage. Existing 4G and LTE connectivity already make use of small cell technology.
But in order to support the blistering speeds of 5G networks, existing physical infrastructure will require a significant facelift. To put the demands of 5G into perspective—a single 5G user can easily consume the bandwidth of all 4G users connected to a small cell radio source. Some analysts estimate that current networks will have to perform at 10 times their capacity today to cope with 5G demands.
The cost of upgrading will be heavily shouldered by network operators. But even without 5G technology, an overhaul is looming in the horizon. Research firm McKinley found that network providers around the world will start running out of capacity to serve traffic demands within the next five years, necessitating the construction of new radio towers and small cells. The cost of upgrading networks is estimated to rise by as much as 60 percent for network operators.
With the data demands of the digital age showing no signs of ebbing anytime soon, governments, network operators, and businesses may do well with a proactive approach and lean into investments in 5G infrastructure.
One smart way to invest in upgrades is through improving current fibre networks. 5G may largely be a wireless technology, but wired connections still play a large role. By the end of 2019, nearly $144.2 billion will have been spent on fibre infrastructure investments.
Fibre optic connections will be essential in supporting latency-free transmission between macro sites, small cells, and end users. While the last mile connection to individual homes and establishments will mostly be wireless, the majority of the network will still be run through fibre backhaul systems to macro sites. In fact, the market for single-mode fibre, the thinnest kind of fibre cable with the highest transmission rates, is expected to grow to $6.81 billion globally.
For many businesses, 5G is arriving later, rather than sooner. But exponentially increasing data demands from consumers to industrial IoT ecosystem means the day will be here sooner than we think.
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Michael Turner, ICT manager, Downend School