What Will 5G Do When It's Ready for Prime Time?

5G wireless technology. Is it here yet? If not, when will it be here? And more importantly, what are the implications for the evolution of business and technology in the 21st century?

Questions abound about what makes 5G technology a potential game-changer, its current progress and what a future with 5G could entail. We will answer these questions with some context and perspective.

How Long Until 5G is Everywhere?

The reality is that 5G technology is still in its infancy. Mainstream adoption of 5G is still probably several years out, and the transition from one generation to the next will be far more gradual than expected. 5G is an evolutionary technology and a progression from 4G; current deployments are actually borrowing much from 4G and its existing infrastructure. While some businesses will reap the benefits of this higher performance technology in limited areas, most consumers can expect only modest performance improvements in the short term, albeit with extended coverage over improved 4G LTE networks. Even the latest and greatest 5G network devices will likely be spending a lot of time on 4G networks when a 5G infrastructure is not available.

But make no mistake, 5G wireless technology is coming and none of these early adoption concerns can minimize its transformative characteristics. 5G technology is foundational to the next-generation revolutions often described as "pillars of technology." These include Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence (AI), smart factories-of-the-future and others.

A 5G network is a much more technologically friendly ecosystem than 4G, and it's not just about extremely fast data rate. 5G technology will support higher capacities at faster speeds. With low latency of mere milliseconds and network slicing capabilities, it will be able to embrace up to 100 times more connected devices per unit area, and with less lag time or delay as compared to today's technology. These increased capacities will dramatically accelerate both the adoption and performance of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, enabling much more robust and reliable performance simultaneously across numerous connected devices in smaller concentrated areas. Combining all of this to create a cohesive 5G ecosystem delivers one of 5G's biggest impacts: decision-making in real-time.

What Will be Common 5G Applications?

In healthcare, a 5G rollout will enable new applications that were previously limited by bandwidth availability. Early work in digital health has focused on taking patient care outside the four walls of the hospital in support of new models for the patient/doctor relationship.

Medical devices today use wireless technologies across multiple spectra and wireless network ranges to measure biomarkers, a key element of clinical research. Accomplished via simple Bluetooth® wireless technology with a local smartphone app, the device collects information on the efficacy of a device during dosing, such as a smart inhaler dispensing asthma medicine. Imagine additional devices leveraging the latest sensor technology to measure multiple key performance indicators, such as flow rates, pressure and temperature--all at once. As 5G emerges and its enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) fabric delivers on network capacity and peak data rates, new applications will become possible, allowing direct data transmission to the cloud, as well as connecting users to emergency response services for real-time interaction.

Today, in order to better support safety in sports, sensors in mouthguards and other performance equipment are used to monitor athletes during competition. Cellular networks and LTE technologies have proven to be competent platforms for the simple data analysis components of these applications. So imagine the additional processing and analysis will deliver within the AI landscape through 5G's bandwidth speeds, millisecond latencies and reliable connections.

5G is poised to drive enormous strides in healthcare, enabling rapid detection (and earlier intervention) among patients monitored in real time and streaming health data 24/7. The platform's predictive capabilities driven by AI's targeted algorithms will also speed the shift from reactive symptom-based medicine to a more proactive, preventative practice of health.

In the retail household sector, where WiFi provides the backbone for the smart home, 5G may ultimately compete with WiFi 6 and other technologies suited to manage dozens of devices on a single 5G wireless network. But it's the collaboration-not competition-of WiFi6 and 5G that will usher automation from the future into now.

The reality is that nearly every item in your life, from clocks, lights, windows and appliances will be a connected device before you know it. Automating things like window shades, thermostats, pet feeders and security systems are more than a simple convenience; it represents a paradigm shift and will drive more demand for local bandwidth.

Consumer products such as household cleaners, pet food and baby formula will leverage connected packaging with sensor technology and flexible electronics to track when supplies are low and initiate auto-replenishment. All the data generated from these actions will be sent wirelessly and automatically, enabling direct shipment to the homeowner's doorstep. Essentially, Joe Consumer will have in his hands powerful yet simple supply chain management tools for maintaining stock of needed goods for his home.

At a factory level, AI-powered facilities will go beyond predictive maintenance to model decision points in production well in advance so that actions can be taken to maximize productivity with minimal disruptions to the assembly line. These factories will cognitively analyze data to identify these decision points. But it's also where a new challenge lies: to be effective, the raw processing power of AI needs data as it's generated. It cannot be successful in looking backward at data collected in the past. A smart factory's data-hungry engine needs information generated in real-time from potentially thousands of sensors without latency. And that's where 5G wireless technology and low latency come in.

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How 5G Works

Because 5G tech operates in several distinct regions of the wireless spectrum, including sub 6GHz and 24 GHz and beyond (termed millimeter wave or mmWave), it requires complex and different hardware to support solutions driven by different performance criteria. The higher frequencies beginning at 24 GHz offer hundreds of MHz of bandwidth for wireless transmission. At shorter wavelengths, however, these frequencies are prone to interference and have limited penetration in buildings. Despite the challenges with the propagation path, these signals can be measured via antennas packed into small form factors to form arrays. This architecture drives smaller cell sites and will support beamforming and other antenna techniques like MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) -- something that 4G LTE technology has already validated.

What's clear, even as we're sorting through what still needs work, is that blending computing power with machine and sensor technologies will result in more agile, fully connected, and automated factories. For example, machinery can be adjusted between its actions on the assembly line; manufacturing robots will be able to coordinate with one another under the collective guidance of 5G-enabled machine-to-machine (M2M) wireless communication. This is the bridge that will take us across to the next great step: equipment that can think on its own.

Yes, we are still in the early stages of a 5G network, but as we continue to work on developing modules, the challenges are becoming clearer. Broadcasting in the upper range of the frequency spectrum depends on costly hardware and custom processing. Consider the manufacturing processes required to assemble radio technology with 64 transceivers mounted on a printed circuit board. Today, each of these would require manual tuning. Figuring out how to autotune these boards to maximize assembly efficiency is one of the primary issues being investigated and addressed by engineers.

There are also serious material considerations presented by placing the transceivers and related electronics on a printed circuit board assembly, as the tolerances in manufacturing to accommodate such high frequencies are much less forgiving than in the past. Materials that work with 4G LTE today may present a disruption to signal layers on 5G deployment tomorrow. Over-the-air testing is also a challenge, as the regions of the spectrum where 5G architecture lives each require different testing hardware. This makes final validation and testing a costly and time-consuming endeavor.

What's certain, despite all the questions and concerns surrounding 5G service, is that lower latency is a key game-changer. Think of low latency as simply the lag between an order and a consequence. 5G speed will eliminate this lag. This feature of 5G connectivity will greatly enhance the performance and application of all healthcare's emerging technology: IoMT devices and platforms, AI-driven smart devices, robotic surgery, augmented reality and virtual reality.

Over the last few years, we've been witnessing an increasing convergence of two distinct worlds: information technologies and operational technologies. The 5G rollout may just be the ring that binds them together, happily ever after.


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