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How Australia is gearing up for 5G

From trialling 5G networks at the recent Commonwealth Games to flying drones in surf sport lifesaving, Australia is becoming a test bed for 5G services with its dense cities and wide-open spaces

The next-generation mobile connectivity, 5G, is being tested by Australian telcos this year ahead of the first network roll-outs in 2019.

Although the promise of 5G in the enterprise runs the gamut, from enabling smart factories to putting advanced analytics into the field via smartphones, what is hard to gauge is how quickly Australian businesses can put the technology to more productive use other than streaming ultra-high-resolution videos.

One indicator of the enterprise appetite for 5G came from a Gartner survey released in September 2017. The technology research firm found, not surprisingly, that at this pre-roll-out stage, the greatest hunger for 5G came from the telco industry.

“Those in the telecoms industry are more likely to be prepared to pay more than those in other industries,” said Sylvain Fabre, research director at Gartner, in a statement.

“User organisations in the manufacturing, services and government sectors, for example, are less likely to be willing to pay a premium for 5G than telecoms companies, which are willing to pay a 5G premium for their internal use,” he said.

While 75% of surveyed organisations said they would be willing to pay more for 5G than 4G, the positive responses were weighted towards the lower end of the premium over 4G. About half of the respondents said they would pay up to 10% more for 5G services, while just 8% were willing to pay over 30% more.

Nearly 60% of respondents also saw 5G technology more as a network evolution rather than a game-changer, with only 37% seeing 5G as a digital business enabler. This shows that telcos have their work cut out for them in selling the benefits of 5G to enterprise customers.

Test bed for 5G

That 5G sales push is certainly up and running in Australia, which is seen as a test bed for 5G services with the country’s dense cities and wide open spaces.

Telcos in Australia used the recent Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in southeast Queensland to test their coming 5G networks. 3GPP, the global mobile standards body, will also meet on the Gold Coast in September 2018 to finalise the technology’s roll-out standards.

At its 5G innovation centre in the Gold Coast, Telstra is conducting demonstrations of download and upload speeds – up to 3Gbps and 300Mbps respectively – over millimetre wave spectrum. It is also conducting field trials to test the use of 5G to support autonomous driving, as well as operate artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled drones in surf lifesaving sport using the technology’s beam-forming techniques.

On the consumer front, the telco is trying to entice consumers into thinking about 5G by connecting 5G backhaul and infrastructure in its Southport Exchange to a standard Wi-Fi access point that people can access with current smartphones.

Not to be outdone by its main rival, Optus was also riding on the Commonwealth Games for 5G coverage. As the official support network for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Optus delivered the event’s communications infrastructure and managed services for the games.

The telco was keen to showcase at the games the potential of its upcoming 5G network for both consumer and enterprise use. Optus CEO Allen Lew told reporters at a Gold Coast media event that 5G would be available in Australian capital cities from January 2019, even though the first 5G smartphones aren’t expected until the second half of 2019.

Lew said, however, the first application of 5G would not be mobile, but fixed, wireless, where it was possible to provide a home or business with a 100Mbps connection using 5G-based technology.

Enterprise 5G applications

At its Gold Coast showcase, Optus showed off a robot hand that took advantage of 5G’s speed and low latency to play “rock, paper, scissors” in a demo designed to spark the potential for industrial applications of the coming high-speed mobile technology.

Like Telstra, Optus had a van equipped with a widescreen TV that showed off 5G’s ability to maintain ultra-high-resolution video streaming on the move. At the Cisco Live event in Melbourne earlier this year, Optus managing director of networks, Dennis Wong, talked up the potential of 5G in the enterprise.

On the manufacturing front, 5G technology would boost connectivity for so-called smart factories, where 5G networks could be the glue that brings together machine tools, robots, machine learning, AI and big data analytics.   

Optus believes further benefits will come from reduced downtime and maintenance costs via condition-based monitoring aided by machine learning and “digital twins” that can forecast performance, optimise maintenance schedules and automatically order replacement parts.

“We are seeing a lot of use cases and a lot of capability that this high capacity can bring us,” Wong told the audience. “The first use case of 5G is the extreme bandwidth, and the second thing is the low latency.”

With the typical human reactivity at around 30 milliseconds, Wong said the low latency of 5G had the potential to get rid of the nausea-inducing giddiness that has afflicted current virtual reality applications.

In healthcare, Optus believes 5G will make AI-driven, wireless remote surgery possible, as well as improved real-time health management systems that can track patients along with their medical records and recommend treatments and appropriate medicines.

Read more about 5G in APAC

A discussion paper put out by Australia’s department of communications in late 2017 on how 5G could help enable the future economy pointed to machine-type communications as a major enabler.

“As 5G networks mature, they will support the widespread and dense deployment of sensors and other network-connected devices by significantly reducing their power requirements and providing flexible coverage across different spectrum bands,” it said.

“This proliferation of the internet of things across industries is expected to produce significant productivity benefits and support integration between sectors.”

The paper also pointed to the potential for Australia’s agriculture sector.

“A challenge for Australia’s agricultural sector is identifying how to improve productivity while balancing environmental and commercial constraints. Precision agriculture, which focuses on improving yields and minimising economic risks, seeks to provide more control in the management of agricultural production.

“While precision agriculture requires a range of enablers – including data analysis, sensor networks and geographical information systems – 5G can provide the supporting infrastructure for these technologies,” the paper said.

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