With all major US carriers launching 5G cellular initiatives business leaders should now consider how this new technology can impact both current and future business operations. This guide provides succinct inputs that can kickstart your strategic planning to ensure you are ready to dominate during and after this strategic shift.
5G promises improvements to speed and number of devices that can operate on a network. But the devil is in the details. 5G comes with weaknesses too. And it is being rolled out at the same time as major improvements to other communications systems (including Wi-Fi 6 and spaced based communications). This all needs to be taken into context when considering your actions.
A Short History of Cellular Networks
For 40 years the pattern has been one major upgrade a decade. Each major upgrade saw winners and losers in the competitive market.
- The first generation of cellular networks (now known as 1G), was fielded in the 1980’s. It was basically a mobile version of analog phones.
- In the 1990’s, as the digital revolution swept the telecom industry the next generation of cellular (2G) was fielded. Digital technologies enabled better security and faster networking. It also allowed for basic SMS messaging.
- In the early 2000’s, 3G brought new protocols and speeds that could reach a few megabits per second, which opened the door to some limited streaming of video and music to mobile devices.
- 4G, the current standard in the US, improved speeds by an order of magnitude over 3G and paved the way for the more capable smartphones and apps that need very low latency and high data rates.
- 4G also enabled new enterprise capabilities including the ability of many businesses to use cellular connections for backup to fiber in times of outage.
What is 5G?
The 5G standard is a well thought out design that requires new antennas to transmit and receive cellular data. 5G is capable of greater speed and throughput than 4G, as well as much lower latency and the ability to connect far more devices to the network.
- In some situations, 5G speed can be up to 100 times as fast as 4G. Don’t let the marketing fool you, however, this speed is NOT available everywhere.
- There are a three different types of 5G systems, all designed to work together, but delivering different speeds and ranges:
- The highest speed and highest data rate will come from antennas that will have to be placed closely together (about every 800 feet). The speeds in this area will be so high that it will support totally new use cases (like wireless robotics, wireless fiber replacement, wireless machine recognition and AR/VR). This is sometimes called High Band.
- 5G will also support higher performance at longer distances. This is being called Sub-6 5G or sometimes called Low Band 5G. This will give longer range and slightly higher data rates over 4G.
- Further out, the architecture will rely on the existing 4G infrastructure with some improvements. This will be called Gigabit 5G. Higher data rates will be available, but not nearly as high as full 5G or Sub-6 5G.
- 5G requires devices with a new radio system that is not compatible with 4G, so for years all devices will require both 4G and 5G radios.
Carrier and Device Manufacturer Intentions with 5G
- Although the four major US carriers, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint have slightly different intentions, they are all using the same basic building blocks to deliver 5G. And all have been fielding proof-of-concept deployments of 5G systems that are generating positive results. We expect carriers to have the majority of their 5G rollouts done by 2022.
- A good planning assumption is that the major population centers will have the highest levels of 5G coverage and can support the massive speeds the carriers are promising. But don’t plan on it being anywhere else unless your business pays for it to be. Private campus rollouts will be a big gap filler for many.
- Device manufactures have plans for 5G fielding and it is clearly coming, but at the time of this writing the only mainstream devices being sold that are 5G ready are made by Samsung and LG. Apple is expected to launch a 5G capable device in late 2020.
The Impact of 5G for Business
Every business is different, but there is already enough information to enable leaders to prepare for the impact of 5G. Here are some of the use cases that can help you assess how 5G might impact your business and markets:
- 5G communications will enable solutions that provide mobile users, sensors and robotic devices with almost instantaneous communications with cloud based services. This will very likely fuel a boom in both robotic and remote controlled devices.
- Video for public safety, including fire and police, can be almost instantaneously analyzed with cloud based machine recognition, enabling better response to crisis or better prevention of crime.
- Marketing solutions can include optimized, rapidly tailored offerings presented at the right time for the right stage of a person’s purchase decisions
- More firms can “cut the cord” for business operations and use cellular for primary communications. Others will opt to use 5G as backup communications if land line/fiber communications are cut.
- Medical use cases will involve more remote assisted surgery
- Transportation use cases will enable safer driving, optimized routing of traffic, and eventually more autonomous transportation. So some clear use cases will be connected vehicles and aircraft (including manned and robotic).
- Transportation of goods can be optimized in ways that facilitate dramatically improved logistics, saving time and money and improving business agility and ability to better serve customers.
- Better workforce collaboration will be enabled including for mobile users, this includes augmented reality, virtual reality and remote telecollaboration done in ways that are vastly improved over current systems.
- In general, 5G will be best for use cases that involve mobility outside of buildings but near cell towers. For organizations that need cellular connectivity in buildings there are deployment options available that will bring the network inside (but in many cases organizations will opt to use the new Wi-Fi 6 standard for in building communications).
- The result of the new high speed mobile and smartphone revolution included many familiar consumer facing apps and capabilities, the rise of the gig-economy, and new business models few had predicted.
- Consider how potentially higher data rates and more devices working together can impact your business offerings. Use the use cases above only to kickstart the discussion, the most valuable use cases to you and your organization have probably not been thought of yet.
- Since there are tiers of capabilities businesses should understand what is planned for their specific locations. Start a dialog with your carrier to assess their current plans for all your business locations.
- We also know that as this new communication system is fielded there will also be significant improvements to other communications options. A key one is Wi-Fi (the new Wi-Fi 6 standard is available now). Another new communications mode is low latency communications services from space. Businesses should keep in mind these other communications methods when considering their use of 5G. Consider how your 5G and Wi-Fi 6 uses can be synergistic with each other.
- In your strategic planning sessions, share the overview above with your line of business leaders and ask them all to think through how 5G and other revolutionary communications improvements will change your market and customers in 3 to 5 years.
- There is a big knowledge gap we all have… It is impossible to predict with any certainty the dominate use cases of the new 5G and Wi-Fi 6 enabled world. But consider the analogy of how 4G enabled the rise of Uber, AirBnb and the entire gig economy. Consider whether or not your firm can leverage the new means of communication and new platforms to provide market shifting capabilities.
- Do NOT assume that security is part of 5G. There are certainly changes and improvements to some security challenges but with history as a guide we can clearly state this as an observable fact: There will be security issues and major surprises that come with this transition to 5G. Prepare to be surprised. Ensure your incident response teams are ready for new challenges.
Marc Andreessen of a16z is fond of pointing out three common models for discussing the power of network effects. The first, called Sarnoff’s Law, was dominate in the age of TV. It was the observation that the value of a network was in direct proportion to the number in that network. So a TV station with 10 million viewers was twice as valuable as a TV station with 5 million viewers. The second is Metcalfe’s Law, the observation so applicable in the Internet age which considered the value of a network being proportional to the square of the number of connected users. The third, which has been demonstrated in a few key social media and collaboration systems, is called Reed’s Law. This one may well be the dominate driver of value during the coming wave of communications transformation. Reed’s Law is the observation that the value of a network is proportional to the number and ease with which groups and sub groups can form within it. The incredible number of new devices that will soon be able to run on cellular networks and the very high data rates and low latencies will enable new value in ways that are hard to imagine so it may be helpful to think of Reed’s Law as the new driver. More and more value will come from 5G, and the more your company empowers groups and sub groups with it the better it will be for your competitive advantage.
Perhaps our most important recommendation: Do not consider 5G as a destination or a single switch over. Like other waves of improvement before it, this will be a pathway to the future vice a single event.