With plenty of headlines signaling 5G-fueled transformation, it’s important to separate promise from hype. This measured awareness, coupled with excitement for the fascinating enterprise opportunities ahead, will help businesses get ahead of changes and challenges in the 5G era.
Jason Leigh, a research manager for the International Data Corporation (IDC), analyzes the emerging 5G ecosystem and what it means for businesses. Here, he explores the potential of next-gen networks on the business community while also level-setting expectations.
Why is there so much confusion about what 5G can do?
If you’ve heard a variety of perspectives on 5G, there’s a good reason why: There are actually three different bands (or ranges) of 5G signal.
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what 5G is and isn’t in the marketplace,” says Leigh. “We see a lot of companies with the mindset that 5G will replace everything. The reality is that it’s a much more complicated question given all the connectivity bands out there in the market.”
Understanding these three signal bands is a smart first step toward simplifying the technology and understanding its potential:
High-band 5G: These wave frequencies have tons of bandwidth, but require cell sites to be in close proximity and have limited penetration in buildings.
Mid-band 5G: These frequencies have broader coverage and are less affected by buildings, with the ability to serve metropolitan areas.
Low-band 5G: Low-band frequencies, like T-Mobile’s 600MHz spectrum, can travel hundreds of square miles and pass through more obstacles, providing a stronger, more reliable signal both indoors and outside.
How will 5G compare to what I have now?
In the past, we’ve seen how generational advances in cellular networks can change the way we use mobile technology. For example, Leigh says that LTE could be defined by the smartphone becoming the powerful device of choice for consumers. But we shouldn’t expect 5G to have similar implications: The advances it fuels won’t be phone-centric.
“5G is probably not going to be defined by any one singular device, but rather a very diverse set of device types,” he says. “If I look at 5G strictly as a technology by itself and what it can do vis-a-vis LTE or 4G, it is an incredible performance improvement.”
But it’ll take time before the full set of 5G use cases we tend to hear about—fully autonomous cars, remote surgeries and other futuristic concepts—will be ready for prime time.
What’s the business opportunity?
Imagine this: On a factory floor, one production cycle ends and another is ready to begin, not just for the same product in a different color, but for an entirely different product line. Rather than sending out staff to reconfigure the floor, you simply push a button.
“And you watch the factory floor reconfigure itself for product run number two,” says Leigh. “That flexibility is really fascinating to me.”
That sort of automation is one type of 5G opportunity Leigh envisions for businesses: internal operations efficiencies. Automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR) are just a few of the 5G-enabled tools that businesses can leverage for major efficiency gains. Consider a retailer using AI to field 90% of its customer service calls or an architect using VR to design a building—allowing front-line service reps to more quickly solve customer problems, letting architects socialize and refine designs faster, or many other scenarios.
The second business opportunity, Leigh says, is how 5G will enable organizations to create new products and services to drive revenue. While there are all kinds of possibilities for business innovation, Leigh expects it’ll take one blockbuster product or service to showcase 5G potential in this area.
“We need that Pokémon Go,” he says. “That one, massive, home-run use case.”
But that 5G use case will likely look very different from a single product or service. In fact, it might be more about what disappears than what appears. For example, the need for device security may become much simpler once devices can do everything from everywhere via the cloud.
“Imagine a scenario where my laptop is nothing more than a keyboard screen and a radio receiver,” Leigh says. “No data sits on it. It almost makes the laptop disposable. I lose it, and guess what? Nobody can use it to access data because there’s nothing on it.”
What challenges will we face?
For businesses, expectation management will be key. Understanding the capabilities and availability of the three types of 5G bands will help business leaders maximize their use of 5G over time. For example, today high-band 5G is very expensive to implement, in addition to having limited range.
On the other hand, “there’s the very low-frequency 5G, where you could put up a single tower and cover miles and miles of territory, and it transmits indoors,” Leigh says. Currently, that makes low-band 5G the most practical spectrum for businesses to leverage.
As 5G starts to ignite innovation, Leigh also anticipates regulatory obstacles for businesses, from acquiring FDA approval for technology required for remote surgery to the network buildout in a huge country with a decentralized regulatory regime.
What about 5G should businesses get excited about today?
Understanding the intricacies of 5G allows business leaders to start planning for the future today.
“Companies already investing in digital transformations are going to realize some of those benefits earlier because they’re already thinking, ‘What happens if I’m able to unplug every PC, every piece of equipment in my factory, and the only things that are bolted down are the floor, wall and ceiling?’” says Leigh.
“There’s a lot to be excited about—but we need a lot more planning,” he says. “For a business looking to deploy 5G, you need to start thinking about it now, with an eye on what the timeline is. What would I like to connect, and what difference will it make? Who do I need to partner with to get this done?”
To learn more about the impact of next-gen networks in business, check out T-Mobile’s vision for 5G and how other businesses plan to innovate in the 5G era.