cell tower from underneath
PHOTO: alistairmcintyre

5G is among the biggest tech buzzwords of the day. But what does it actually mean for users?

You won’t find out from AT&T’s series of “OK” commercials, which encourage consumers not to settle for subpar mechanics, doctors, tattoo artists or wireless networks. The company flashes an all-caps message touting its 5G EVOLUTION at the end of each spot — but that’s it. I’d say the ads do a pretty subpar job of touting the actual benefits of 5G.

In reality, 5G’s future is vastly more mind-blowing. Right now, the opportunities for business use cases are virtually limitless. But it will take a few years until these next-gen networks are standardized in both B2C and B2B, which means IT leaders have a major impetus to jump into immediate planning.

Why Is 5G Such a Game Changer?

As with so many new technologies, 5G is shrouded in misconception and mystery. More than 71% of consumers called it “just hype” at the beginning of 2019, while another 5% weren’t sure what 5G was. While I’ve yet to see a similar poll of business leaders, it’s safe to assume a fair portion fails to grasp the technology’s potential.

Allow me to weave you a tale of two areas where 5G will take an exponential leap: bandwidth and latency. Most of us can appreciate bandwidth in a literal way: more bandwidth equals more download speed and capacity. 5G’s increased bandwidth means it operates at 20 times the speed of 4G — in literal terms, an entire movie will download in 35 seconds, compared to 27 minutes on an average LTE network today.

But latency is where 5G will really excel. Slow load times, hiccups in streaming video or audio and many other Wi-Fi related headaches will essentially disappear. For consumers, near-zero latency is a nice-to-have — no one enjoys it when “Frozen” starts buffering during the best Olaf scene. But 5G’s unprecedented dependability flings open a door of possibility for business use cases. 

Related Article: How 5G Will Impact Augmented and Virtual Reality Use

What Will 5G Make Possible?

The infrastructures of entire businesses, industries and cities face a paradigm shift in a 5G world. Newfound consistency means POS systems, hospital equipment, nuclear plants and transit systems no longer require a hardwired network connection hindered by lower bandwidth. 5G eliminates status codes, adding more computing power at the edge within devices themselves, which means more computing can be completed internally and transported to the cloud. For example, smart utility meters began as a solution to sending workers around in a truck to check monthly usage. With 5G, the same meter can be coded to return a continuous stream of usage data fine-tuned to individual appliances. Our data-driven world will become infinitely more detailed.

This connectivity shift is especially notable in urban areas where large, dense buildings previously have blocked reliable signals. Because of shifts in radio spectrum, 5G relies on micro-towers that fit within and disappear into existing physical infrastructure rather than traditional tall cellular towers. It’s a tactic that banks have long used to transmit data instead of using public cellular networks. Now other industries can join the ranks.

Any new 5G-enabled projects or capabilities are also far more cost-effective, following a tech pattern we’ve seen throughout the decades. Not only are carriers able to provide much higher bandwidth at a much lower cost, the price of manufacturing radio frequency chips has plummeted to the point that nearly any business use case becomes commercially viable. Any object within any enterprise, from gas canisters to forklifts, can be affordably smart-enabled.

Related Article: 5 Ways Edge Computing Will Make Work Easier

Preparation Starts With an Open Mind

Would your enterprise benefit from robots that mimic human movement? Done! Autonomous vehicles that self-navigate around your campus? All set! 5G’s real-time connection and speed means the only limitation is your imagination (and, of course, your budget to support that imagination).

However, most business leadership seems hesitant to adopt this mindset. Sixty percent say the biggest challenge of their 5G strategy is business use cases. And while 57% of operators have a complete and approved 5G pilot strategy in place, only 17% can say the same for a commercial strategy.

As this McKinsey report so adeptly spells out, 5G’s capabilities won’t be fully appreciated until practical use cases become common practice. Innovators who are first out of the gate to develop such use cases likely will make a significant financial investment — but they also are positioned to join the history books alongside the iPhone and other 3G-inspired innovations.