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This year has seen the rollout of the first 5G networks in the UK. According to a recent forecast by the GSMA, more than 1.4 billion connections will be on 5G by 2025. The technology promises not only greater speed, but more capacity and lower latency.
It is the enhanced latency that is very likely to bring to fruition a number of interesting technologies, such as augmented reality and self-driving cars.
While one day 5G will transform the way businesses operate, from faster transactions in financial services to changing the way manufacturers create and distribute their products, this won’t happen overnight, according to Harry Chima, UK head of CIO advisory at Infosys Consulting.
He says that given that many of the potential applications of 5G are still in such early phases of development, business leaders, and in particular CIOs, should question the “need for speed”.
“While 5G clearly presents opportunities for businesses, it could prove to be an expensive headache,” he says. “Service providers will have to invest in upgrading their networks before they see increased revenue from new superfast services. Meanwhile, CIOs are being tasked with creating a 5G strategy without truly knowing the opportunities, capabilities or challenges that lay ahead.”
But beyond the hype, what applications are likely to be of interest and use to the enterprise and industry?
Manufacturing getting more automated
5G will bring about greater and more intelligent automation – not just the use of robots, but also the ability to fully integrate supply chains across industry, sector and national boundaries, according to Andrew Palmer, consulting director of telecoms at CGI UK.
“Individual parts and deliveries across the whole supply chain will also be able to be tracked, leading to greater efficiencies in supply and logistics processes,” he says. “The impact on individual industries will depend on the use cases and the outcomes to be delivered, but the general trend will be greater integration and sharing of data to make supply chains run more smoothly.”
5G can aid the development of autonomous vehicles and address issues facing the transport sector, such as traffic congestion, pollution and collisions, by enabling a truly intelligent transport system.
For instance, 5G will enable direct communication from vehicle to vehicle, without passing through the network, to prevent traffic congestion and delays. Autonomous vehicles are capable of alerting others of changing conditions, such as collisions, weather or road incidents.
“This allows autonomous vehicles to drive close to each other in what are called ‘platoons’ – a group of vehicles going in the same direction at a given time – optimising traffic flow while increasing safety on the road,” says Benoit Jouffrey, Gemalto’s vice-president of 5G Expertise.
He says that 5G will also enable communication between vehicles and city infrastructure such as sensors, traffic lights, cameras and drones. The issue today is that the wireless technologies used by existing systems are fragmented – but 5G will not only unify the communication and provide direct low latency, but it will also enable intelligent applications which are not achievable today.
“For example, an experiment on smart traffic, carried out over existing technologies by the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the US several years ago, showed a decrease in journey time by as much as 40% and pollutant emissions by 20%,” says Jouffrey.
Smart power grids
The main use of 5G in the energy sector will be to provide the single communications “network of networks” to allow smart grids and demand-side energy flexibility to become the norm. Being able to model the grid in real time means it can be automated to run the right level of supply at any time, says CGI’s Palmer.
“The energy grid can be treated in the same way as a manufacturing plant – it just manufactures power. This means that all the ideas in manufacture can be used in energy as well,” he says.
“We are talking about digital twins of the distribution grid, generating stations and substations, more effective monitoring of power consumption on a macro and micro level, more efficient power generation to meet real-time demand and the ability to allow off-grid sources (cars, solar panels, windmills, etc) to integrate seamlessly in the energy supply ecosystem.”
Retailing improving using VR and AR
Manu Tyagi, associate partner, retail and consumer goods at Infosys Consulting, says that the introduction of 5G is not just an incremental telecoms technology improvement.
With the potential to reach speeds of 10Gbps with minimal latency and pervasive connectivity, it opens up an array of possibilities for retailers and their technology teams. 5G will enable them to “supercharge” innovative consumer experiences and provide highly personalised engagement to consumers, powered by seamless connectivity and ultra-fast response times.
“The main examples where we expect retailers and leading consumer goods companies to use 5G are smart shelves, real-time merchandising messaging and promotions, personalised digital signage both in-store and in mobile apps, and virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)-enabled technologies like adaptive magic mirrors, which would have an impact for fashion retailers,” he says.
Tyagi adds that the ability to track and monitor store inventories in real time – allowing consumers to seamlessly order online for home delivery if their choice is not available in store – “is another area where the quick response times powered by 5G will make a big difference for consumers seeking great retail experiences”.
What can be done in factories can also apply to farms, meaning more automation of processes and the ability to use sensors to improve processes. For instance, Vodafone has already placed sensors onto female cows’ tails. When they are pregnant, a cow’s temperature rises and they swish their tail more to stay cool.
A simple sensor can report on the rise in temperature and tail movement, which can then be processed by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to predict the likely time of labour, meaning the farmer and vet are able to devise a schedule for birthing, according to Palmer.
Read more about 5G
- The first 5G sites in Ireland have gone live in Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.
- The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy is to probe the UK government’s approach to telecoms technology as a national security issue.
“A greater use of sensors can help both the farmer and vets with other livestock, both from a health perspective, but also tracking movement and potentially helping to reduce the chance of livestock being stolen,” he says.
Drones and autonomous vehicles can be deployed for a wide range of purposes, as the sparsely populated farm represents less of a hazard to use cases built around them, such as ploughing and crop inspection/treatment. Sensors can also help to monitor crop and soil conditions, again helping to predict and prevent potential problems from arising.
“The use of sensors, like in factories, will also help with an improvement in maintenance costs and downtimes,” says Palmer.
Self-driving cars and the future
The evolution of 5G over the next five years will, to some extent, depend on the development of new end-user technologies that might one day become reliant on the network.
According to Paul Carter, president and CEO of independent mobile network benchmarking firm Global Wireless Solutions, a good example of this is in the field of connected and autonomous vehicle technology.
“If self-driving cars progress rapidly and start to become prevalent on our roads, we may begin to see features such as network prioritisation implemented to give precedence to vehicle communications ahead of deprioritised network activities, such as sending a text message,” he says.
AI and machine learning
5G will facilitate much wider adoption of AI, according to James Ewing, regional director UK and Ireland at Digital Workforce. He says that one of the biggest barriers to AI adoption has been limited processing speeds.
“5G promises to deliver data transfer speeds 10 times faster than 4G ever could,” he says. “This means that systems using AI applications will be able to receive and process data much faster.”
In turn this will impact machine learning as systems using AI applications will be able to analyse data much faster, and thus learn from it and make the necessary improvements much faster.
While the next five years will see more 5G-enabled devices and 5G chipsets within devices in modems, and more operators building out 5G coverage and spectrum, control at the edge will be vital for a wide range of specific use cases and applications, where throughput and minimal latency is essential to the customer experience.
Ramiro Noble, vice-president of Global Strategy and Solutions at Accedian, says this could include, for instance, smart city transport initiatives, VR and AR apps in retail environments, e-health services for patients and responders, and analytics for utilities.
“To make 5G a success, operators need to think about what they can offer that their customers can’t already get from perhaps, public cloud providers? Competing on connectivity and bandwidth alone will not be enough – taking that control of edge cloud and access count in terms of service reliability and performance guarantees is what will really determine success,” he says.
All technology evolves and 5G hardware and networks are no different. As other associated emerging technologies change and expand, so 5G will advance to allow the use of new and emerging opportunities and demand.