The ever-continuing march of innovation is occasionally punctuated by the rollout of technologies that don’t just increase the rate of progress, but completely change the game. 5G is one such technology.

“5G is indeed the next radio standard, following 2G, 3G and 4G. But 5G is much more than that. 5G is the true convergence of computing and communications, where everything that can be smart and connected will be,” explained Sandra Rivera, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Network Platforms Group, during a talk at Web Summit.

Already undergoing trials in many parts of the world, including the UK, USA and China, the first national 5G networks are likely to appear in 2019, with supporting consumer devices set to arrive at the same time. However, 5G’s true benefits are likely to go far beyond faster mobile data speeds, and many organisations are already scrambling to determine how they can best make use of the technology.

“With 50 times the peak data rate and a ten times lower latency, 5G will enable new use cases and new capabilities that will transform devices, the data centre and the network as well. 5G networks will be more scalable, more agile and more programmable, and will deliver new services that will drive a better quality of experience in our day to day lives,” summarised Rivera.

“It has a significant role to play in industry transformation, not just in the evolution of communication but in the evolution of businesses and society as a whole. 5G networks are a foundational building block that represents the convergence of computing and communications technologies connecting everything and everyone, from the device to the cloud and everything in between.”

Low-latency: taking data streaming to new heights

While it’s not hard to find experts willing to rave about the transformational potential of 5G, appreciating why is perhaps more useful. Of course the simple increase in speed is important – 5G is around 1000 times faster than the current network standard 4G – but it is the pairing with a drop in latency that makes the technology’s potential so powerful.

Referring to the delay between the instruction to transfer data and it actually being transferred, poor latency is responsible for the lag that can being experienced on a host of devices that are being controlled or impacted by remotely-issued instructions. And while 4G has a latency of 50 milliseconds, 5G’s latency is just 1 millisecond.

“The difference in latency between 4G and 5G can mean the difference between a drone colliding with a physical object in its path, or being able to steer clear to reach somebody in need of rescue,” explained Rivera.

“When you look at the broad range of applications and use cases that 5G needs to enable, all of this requires a network that is highly composable in real time, where a network slice can be served up to meet the end-user applications and the requirements of that particular use case without too much, or too little, use of the underlying infrastructure.”

For 5G, this drop in latency opens up a huge range of potential applications, from telemedicine and networked driverless vehicles to vast monitoring systems or remotely streamed ultra high-resolution entertainment solutions, many of which would not be possible to work in real-time with increased lag.

The media impact: from on-the-go gaming to VR and AR

For consumers, the leading benefits will undoubtedly be in multimedia. Downloading a full-length high-definition film, for example, will take less than 10 seconds, compared to around 10 minutes on 4G.

It will also open up dramatic possibilities in more data-heavy applications such as augmented and virtual reality, making it possible to utilise such technologies on-the-go and without the need for the cabled connections that many of the leading VR technologies currently require. In AR, it will also allow for the kinds of overlays on the environment that have long been predicted, enabling users to view digital content as they move around the in the real world.

Similarly the gaming industry will be able to expand its already impressive offering of online gaming, with mobile games potentially able to match the sophistication of current desktop-based products without being hampered by lag.

“5G could possibly, for once and for all, fulfill mobile’s ambition to change the way we consume media. We are talking a new reality, where mobile finally addresses the demand of the new generation for movies, sophisticated games and interactive media, on the go,” said Gil Regev, chief communications officer at RGK Mobile.

While consumers will undoubtedly see the benefits, these new capabilities will also increase opportunities for brands to connect with their audience.

“Advertising will follow through, finally addressing the severe need for new, mobile-dedicated ad formats that are video-based, context-related, proactive and personalised; while marketers, publishers and carriers struggle to adjust, they will collect their rewards in the form of dramatically improved ad performance,” added Regev.

Smart cities, drones and mobile monitoring

The much-promised smart city will also see significant benefits from the rollout of 5G. Driverless cars, which are set to begin mass use within just a few years, could be enhanced significantly by 5G through the networked control of fleets or between-vehicle communication enhancing the overall safety.

For security, 5G also has the potential to enhance technologies already being hesitantly trialled by police and security forces in many parts of the world, such as facial recognition.

“Police and event security can use facial recognition to identify suspect objects or people and compare those images with an edge computing platform that has a database where you're doing AI inference in real time and identifying a potential match,” explained Rivera.

“This can increase the safety of the venue, and certainly this can be expanded to large-scale venues and concerts to increase both public safety and the enjoyment of the event. That combination of artificial intelligence for facial recognition plus 5G bandwidth and low latency is a very powerful capability that we will deliver in the future.”

“The combination of artificial intelligence for facial recognition plus 5G bandwidth and low latency is a very powerful capability.”

On the monitoring side, there has been considerable discussion about the use of vast networks of sensors, located both on fixed points in urban areas and on roving devices such as drones, to monitor and improve all aspects of a city’s operation.

One of the dreams of the Internet of Things, this would require what Rivera described as “the massive machine-type of communications that you have in a smart city, with thousands or tens of thousands of sensors aggregating data that you need to turn into valuable insights”. As a result, improving the latency and speed of such a network would dramatically improve both the efficiency and potential complexity of the network, so it is no surprise that the technologies are being tested in tandem.

One such trial is the Urban Connected Communities Project, which is currently in the process of selecting an urban area to trial as the first ‘5G city’, where citywide 5G will be installed alongside the establishment of a host of initiatives, including remote healthcare, traffic and transport monitoring and the establishment of AR and VR tourism experiences.

“This is a huge opportunity for an urban area to become the flagship of our ambitious programme to make Britain fit for the future and a world leader in 5G,” said Margot James, Minister for Digital.

“Trialling 5G at scale across an entire city is a chance to prove the economic benefits predicted from this new technology, test different methods of deployment and boost the connectivity of ordinary people working and living there.”

Healthy prospects: the medical and life-saving applications of 5G

While 5G has considerable potential for daily entertainment, operation and management, it can also assist significantly in one-off crisis situations, such as disaster response.

“With the recent path of destruction caused by hurricanes in the United States, it has brought to light the increased use of drones for disaster relief and recovery missions. All of this is being trialled with today's networks, but it will be more broadly enabled at scale with 5G,” said Rivera.

Network connectivity is often vital to rescue situations, which can pose a significant problem when infrastructure has been destroyed. Following Hurricaine Maria, for example, more than 90% of Puerto Rico’s power and communications infrastructure was disabled.

“Drones can be used to set up temporary networks in the sky bringing communications or internet connectivity to thousands of users on the ground.”

“Drones can actually be used to set up temporary networks in the sky bringing communications or internet connectivity to thousands of users on the ground,” explained Rivera, adding that such projects are already being trialled.

On the medicine side, 5G also enables sophisticated remote communication that can allow doctors to give care to people no matter how far away they are.

“Through the use of high-resolution, real-time video streaming, we can enable doctors halfway across the world to be trained or directed by experts via immersive 360-degree video technology. And this high-definition multi-angle visual streaming capability can be critical training or operating tools for doctors, with 5G delivering ten times the amount of bandwidth and data rates over existing technology today,” said Rivera.

“By combining 4G, Wi-Fi and the new millimeter wave capabilities of 5G, 5G can actually push throughputs of greater than one gigabit per second. And this could be the difference in terms of a real-time image being transported and transmitted in less than 10 milliseconds, as compared to what would take as much as a minute or even an hour’s delay in today's networks.”

Making 5G an operational reality

While 5G undoubtedly has dramatic potential, there are also challenges that will need to be overcome for it to prove commercially successful.

“For 5G to make commercial sense, we need to look past the hardware – VR headsets, drones and autonomous vehicles – and recognise that a new infrastructure model is needed to support use-cases that have a chance of creating a commercial return,” argued Sam Evans, associate partner at Delta Partners.

“When it comes to 5G, the traditional telecoms logic of build-your-own network infrastructure on which to provision services may not hold. Services will need to be cloud-based and with global reach. Leading international enterprises that will power the Industrial Internet of Things will expect one solution to work globally.”

“For 5G to make commercial sense, we need to look past the hardware and recognise that a new infrastructure model is needed to support use-cases that have a chance of creating a commercial return.”

As part of this, there is likely to be a disruption of the status quo when it comes to the providers and operators of network infrastructure, with resulting impacts on both users and businesses.

“Infrastructure may need to be shared, and partnerships created, between the network operators and global cloud providers such as AWS and Google,” suggested Evans. “When one person controlling a machine can manage, in real-time, a network of millions of sensors dispersed across the world, the concept of partnership needs to go much deeper than what we see today.”

Companies keen on getting on the 5G bandwagon also need to be cautious, because while there are undoubtedly significant commercial opportunities, there is such as things as the wrong time to get on board.

“There is also the question of timing for 5G infrastructure investment. Too early and there is the risk of high network cost and technology implications, and too late there is the risk of losing market share – as late deployers of LTE have found out to their detriment,” he added. “As if telecom CFOs need another reason to keep them awake at night.”

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