What even is 5G, anyway? I thought it was just about phone networks. But then people in the office started staying “5G is going to transform our lives”, “5G is going to have far reaching implications for every industry and every individual” and I thought okay, calm down, and I decided I’d better have a look into what’s getting the tech industry so hyped.
So here we are, we’ve actually reached the fifth generation of mobile networks. First there was plain old first generation, the hero of the 80s, letting us make thrilling analogue-based voice calls. Next we had mandatory flip phones and digital coverage with the second generation, 2G. Then we were liberated to mobile broadband with 3G (Internet on the move? Is this MAGIC?!). And finally, the much superior 4G has allowed us to exchange data like never before…
But mobile networks aren’t done evolving just yet.
Some countries are lucky enough to already have 5G in selected areas, with Switzerland the world leader so far. In the UK, pockets of major cities have been experiencing 5G since May and more are set to gain access in November. Next year is the government’s target for broader 5G availability (we’ll see how they get on with that one) and all our major mobile networks, plus a few lesser known providers, are busy making 5G available for both industry and consumers.
Well, it’s speedy. Supposedly, 5G will be so fast it will let you download whole movies in less than a minute. It will also be more reliable - in theory, there should be fewer drops in coverage. And you’ll get to enjoy lower latency (if you can detect the difference between a webpage loading in 50 milliseconds or 1, this is for you). It promises to instantly serve you, with no lag times, making it excellent for quick response apps or games. It can even help to extend battery life too, requiring devices to use less energy as they battle to connect.
Anyone who’s been to a festival or concert can attest to the fact that 4G quickly gets congested. Seemingly you have loads of 4G signal, but it takes eons to send a tiny message - what’s that all about? 5G will have greater capacity (ie: greater bandwidth) to support the ever increasing number of connected devices. How much greater capacity? Well it should be able to handle a million devices per km2, as opposed to 4G’s lowly 100,000 (although, they’ll probably be letting that many extra people into each festival soon so who can say how much use this will actually be).
How else is 5G cool? Well, we explored the rise of AR in another one of our blogs, and certainly 5G will make augmented and virtual reality more instantaneous and accessible to the masses.
To show off the possibilities of 5G speeds and bandwidth, the BBC recently partnered with Bristol University to commission an AR app from animation company Aardman (the Wallace and Gromit guys). The app, based at the Roman Baths in Bath, allows thousands of users in a dense area to experience complex AR with no lag. Rather than relying on the phone to render the 3D world, which could prove challenging for some mobile devices, the app streams a video feed from servers at Bristol University, who use their computing power to do all the hard work. The seamlessness of this is made possible by 5G’s bandwidth and low latency.
These kinds of projects could soon be transforming thousands of public spaces and other industries too. So get ready to be freaked out - sorry, I mean, “impressed” - by a lot more weird, superimposed stuff.
Other projects where the cost of computing power is currently a limitation will now be able to launch too. Examples include architectural firms giving virtual tours of homes that haven't yet been built. They will be able to send a link to their client who can then view the experience on their mobile phone. Say the client doesn’t like the carpet - the firm will be able to dynamically change the experience remotely so the client can review it again.
Adaptability for business
5G is unlike its predecessors, in that it will be a constantly evolving network of networks… No one knows what that means, so don’t ask me, but for one example, consider the network congestion problem above. This happens at football grounds, where up to 30,000 fans want to connect their devices at any one time. With the current infrastructure, football clubs currently have to pay for fixed, year round coverage to get this capability, whether it’s game day or not. What a waste! With 5G the network can be adapted ad-hoc to the venues needs. 30,000 devices on game day or 2,000 devices on conference day. Then they’ll pass the savings on to the fans… right?
In the same vein, not all devices need the same level of connectivity. With 5G, network slicing will allow the network to be divided into multiple slices (like cake, presumably) so that you can use the most appropriate service for your device. The best way to understand this is to imagine the difference between getting stuck behind a tractor on a single-lane road vs the flexibility of the three-lane motorway: not every vehicle can or should go as fast as the next. By making different levels of mobile network available, all devices should be able to stay in their lane and free up bandwidth at each level.
Internet of things
The plan is for the 5G networks to develop as we require more and more of them and here’s where it helps to understand the concept of “the internet of things”, which is something we’ve mentioned on our future trends blog. The internet of things describes our freaky, emerging future, where it’s anticipated that almost everything we use, from appliances to cars to public spaces, will be connected to the internet through mobile networks.
Greater mobile connectivity will transform the capabilities of rural businesses or remote workers. No more being sat at home screaming at the conference calling software. As well as allowing for more products and software, once augmented and virtual reality is powered by superior 5G, this kind of thing will feel far more natural. You and Kate from accounting will be like the holograms in the middle of the Jedi council. Productivity should also increase as internet access becomes constant, letting people work quite literally anywhere they want and still be in sync with their colleagues.
The government just this month launched a competition to select 10 rural locations to trial and pioneer 5G connectivity. The £30m of funding available will enable these next generation testbeds to showcase more possibilities once rural tech in connected. This kind of project has already shown success in monitoring salmon fisheries and wind farms in places usually cut off from any kind of decent internet signal, never mind the possibilities of 5G.
All of this should allow businesses to lower costs and in turn pass those savings onto the consumer. In theory, if everything is internet based, the amount of physical hardware you need should decrease, with the internet based software taking over. Courier companies, for example, could process orders entirely based on robotics in a warehouse (this would nix those pesky amazon working-condition complaints at least - robots don’t have feelings, right?) with automated vans that then drive the deliveries away, all organised and controlled through the internet!
In retail, AR shopping experiences will abound because they’ll be able to load instantaneously, allowing customers to visualise products in their homes or see additional information on their screens as they pass by items in stores. Parking will be smart, notifying you of busy times and empty spaces (the dream). Transportation will be automated and driverless, traffic calming measures gloriously responsive and intelligent! In healthcare, remote testing will take over from physical surgery and hospital appointments, digitising health monitoring like the kind discussed in our post on the apple watch.
There will be smarter internet-based ways of working, smarter transport services and other products that can now run on automation, thanks to a reliable mobile network. Smarter buildings will feed live CCTV to our phones (so we can instantly get to the bottom of who’s stealing all the milk), as well as monitoring our environments and reacting to our needs without us even touching the light switch or thermostat. These technologies already exist, but imagine the level of ease once they all work reliably, all the time, wherever you are - no longer just when you scream at your phone app enough that it finds some 4G signal.
As we covered on our agritech blog, the internet of things revolution will transform agriculture. Remote controlled, precision drones will be deployed. Smart sensory devices and weather stations will measure conditions in real time and deliver data to apps or software, which in turn can react by triggering automated shelter, watering or harvesting equipment (or shout at wayward sheep, I guess). Data is constantly analysed and interpreted to give farmers the most precise advice, increasing yields and making logistics efficient. All this will be made possible by the availability of fast and reliable 5G.
Beyond that, the use of digital twinning will rise. This refers to the practice of creating a digital or virtual copy of a real world environment or process. The digital twin can then be manipulated to trial various options for change before having to implement anything in the real world. In agriculture, this might mean making a virtual representation of a crop field with the help of precise measuring and modelling, then trialling different watering techniques and simulating how this would impact ground quality and crop yield. Like farmville! (But less lame.)
Here off the shore of Plymouth, Smart Sound is an area of almost 1,000km2 of water space available for testing new, advanced marine technology, from manufacturing to cybersecurity. In the water, various sensors and craft are deployed to monitor the water, whilst on dry land systems receive their real time data. Back in the lab, with digital twinning of the Sound, modelling can anticipate the effect of different marine interventions. This kind of high tech connectivity will be made widespread with the rise of 5G. And really, that all sounds pretty nifty.
What does this mean for you?
Some people in the telecoms industry believe 5G will revolutionise society and bring untold revenue for companies across the world (some people are just dramatic like that). Qualcomm recently stated that 5G will add close to £3 trillion to the world economy by 2035 and bring millions of new jobs. It’s expected at the very least that 5G will soon underpin most businesses, allowing them to achieve things not previously possible in a lesser-connected world. Mobile internet connectivity is likely to become so widespread that it will be as available as electricity (is it just me or are we going to be more screwed than ever when the aliens come and knock out all our satellites?).
Having said that, bear in mind this is just a projection of the future. It all sounds pretty sci-fi-fab in principle but the UK likely won’t be fully connected to 5G for a few years yet and it’ll take some time for businesses to invest in the tech to take advantage of all these options. In the meantime, keep checking this map to see where 5G is available across the globe and spot if it’s coming to your area!
You might also want to start thinking about how your business could soon make use of 5G or what innovations or changes you might be able to make to improve revenue, staff satisfaction or customer service. Elixel’s Design Thinking sessions can uncover these business challenges and opportunities and help you see new possibilities. Maybe you even have an app idea for this emerging, hyper-connected world - we’re here to help with that too! Just give us a shout via the contact page.
And if this technological revolution freaks you out, at least you can do your panicking now. Build a bunker. We’ll come get you when it’s all up and running.