The Future of Connectivity with 5G Networks
As we think about the future of 5G networks, I can't help but look back a bit. We've come a long way in the development of wireless network and connectivity technologies since the 1980s. What started out as a platform that could only support 2 Kbps over an analog cellular network can today support 200 Mbps over a complex set of technologies that control our productivity, efficiency and communication methods. Now it's just a matter of time before we start saying only 200 Mbps, as the 5G network has slowly, finally, begun rolling out in major cities across the globe.
We're just beginning to see adoption pick up, though it is far from widespread. Globally, 5G subscriptions on 5G-enabled devices grew by 70 million in the first quarter of 2021, mostly in northeast Asia, according to Ericsson. The company's latest mobility report predicts 5G subscriptions will reach 580 million by the end of the year, with the technology reaching global penetration — 3.5 billion subscriptions — by 2026. This would be a faster adoption than any mobile communication technology in history, including 4G.
To make 5G connectivity mainstream, though, consumers using a connected device need to be convinced to upgrade them, and hopefully pay more, for 5G. Mobile network operators Verizon & AT&T are embarking on major marketing campaigns to sell customers on the 5G ecosystem, something they paused during the pandemic as smartphone and mobile device sales dropped and the telco companies focused their messaging on supporting remote work.
They have their work cut out for them to educate consumers about the power of 5G technology. A 2020 JD Power survey found that, while 92% of consumers know about 5G, only 26% believe it will be faster than 4G. And only 5% of users are willing to pay more for 5G. Currently, it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Because they haven't seen a proven use case for 5G or tried it out themselves, it's still unclear to consumers what it is they'd be paying more for. Survey reports from Deloitte and Ericsson found that this lack of a "need" to upgrade could slow adoption; even users who have already switched to 5G want more out of the technology that they couldn't get from 4G or 4G LTE.
Shorter Frequencies Mean Less High-Speed 5G Coverage Across Distances
5G coverage is somewhat limited for the coming years, as the spectrum cannot travel as far as previous generations. Millimeter waves (mmWaves) are the small cells that make up 5G's high-band spectrum. It can only operate over approximately 150 meters of distance, so deployment of this super high-fast 5G speed is only possible in highly populated, dense urban areas.
Generally speaking, the major U.S. cell phone carriers currently provide low-band or mid-band (or in the case of Verizon, high-band in some major cities) 5G in areas surrounding cities. Verizon says it will cover 100 million people with 5G by March 2022, 175 million by the end of 2023, then 250 million by in 2024, with that year being the first where expanded low- or mid-band rural access is expected.
The 5G rollout will be a slow but steady process, with telecommunications companies starting out by offering low or mid-band speeds (see below for more on that) then upgrading to high-band mmWave when and where the 5G infrastructure is in place to support the wireless technology.
Still, 5G is predicted to provide a powerful platform of possibilities for innovators and creators worldwide. In fact, it already is. With that in mind, here are four ways 5G will impact the future of consumers and businesses alike.
Enhanced Mobile Broadband for a Strong Foundation
In an ever-evolving world of instant gratification, customers always want improved speed and reliability. With the introduction of each new "generation," consumers have become accustomed to exponentially stronger performance. That is 5G's biggest selling point.
5G is meant to do three things better than 4G: have lower latency (lag times), higher bandwidth and handle many more devices on the network at once. It has speeds across three tiers:
- Low band, approximately the same frequency as 4G.
- Mid-band, about five to seven times the bandwidth as 4G and lower latency than 4G.
- High-band, which uses millimeter wave. This is what all the hype around 5G speed is about. With super-high bandwidth, high-band has speeds of 10 times or greater than 4G.
The three bands lend themselves to a "crawl, walk, run" approach to 5G deployment and adoption, where companies rollout the technology in phases rather than all at once - starting with low-band and working up to high-band. For example, low-band 5G works to improve existing technologies, like higher-quality video calls (a "crawl"). A "walk" might be using mid-band to make that same video call from virtually anywhere, including places you previously didn't have service. A "run" might be having that call in virtual reality with glasses or a headset.
Also, better encoding on the 5G frequency helps support all frequencies (including existing 4G networks), as well as beamforming technology. This antenna technique allows the same frequency beam to be used in multiple locations and repeatedly as long as the beam doesn't cross in those locations. You can get massively increased bandwidth by being able to reuse the same frequency repeatedly.
5G networks are expected to have more than 1 Gbps of bandwidth, far exceeding current capabilities. With these higher speeds and lower latency, we'll likely be saying goodbye to video buffering and loading screens as we wait for websites and apps to connect to the network.
Consumers and Businesses Adopt 5G Technology for Different Purposes
Where you live and work currently plays a major role in whether you have access to 5G network performance. Geographically speaking, China is the front-runner in 5G adoption, with South Korea, the U.S., Canada and Saudi Arabia not too far behind. Europe is farther behind due to policy issues surrounding spectrum availability.
Still, 5G has been adopted faster than 4G, and that trend is continuing. COVID-19 does not seem to have affected the adoption rate at all. It has continued at an accelerated rate through the pandemic.
This is especially true on the corporate side. Businesses became more interested in 5G as remote work became the way of the future. In early 2020, Deloitte found that most U.S.-based networking executives still viewed 4G LTE and current or previous versions of Wi-Fi as the most critical technologies for their businesses. Less than a year later, they had changed their tune.
In March 2021, networking executives surveyed around the globe said 5G and Wi-Fi 6 were the most critical technologies. Leaders cited the importance of advanced wireless capabilities to address current and future business disruptions, increase bandwidth for remote workers, enhance network security, engage with customers through digital platforms and more.
A Nokia white paper described the types of businesses that need frequent, high-quality mobile connections that could have the most uses for 5G:
- Transportation and cargo, including aviation
- Temporary businesses, including food and drink kiosks, pop-up shops, events and construction sites
- Remote businesses far from the closest reliable mobile connection, including oil refineries, mines, solar and wind power sites, tourist developments and mobile offices
- New businesses (before Wi-Fi is installed) & back-up for Wi-Fi, including factories, warehouses, retail and CCTV
For consumers, the main way they will engage with 5G in the foreseeable future is via their smartphone. 5G smartphones are still quite new to the market, with most launching in mid-2020 or later. If your phone is from before that date and you see 5G in the top left corner, you're not getting 5G service because your phone isn't equipped for that; it's just really high-speed 4G.
Research firm Gartner forecasts that 5G phone sales will grow 11% year-over-year in 2021 to make up 35% of the total global smartphone sales as consumers resume the buying cycles they paused during the pandemic. In their Q2 2021 report, Verizon noted that 20% of their wireless customers now have 5G-enabled phones. Deloitte's 2021 connectivity and mobile trends report found that more than half of the consumers they surveyed plan to eventually buy a 5G phone when the service becomes available in their area; just over 50% also said they would sign up for 5G on their current carrier. Respondents who said they planned to switch carriers gave 5G access as the top reason for doing so.
However, as with any new technology, cost is a barrier to entry. According to Statista, a 5G phone averaged $815 in the U.S. in the first quarter of 2021, making them the most expensive phones on the market. While the major U.S. wireless carriers already include 5G coverage in most of their monthly plans, as higher mid-band and mmWave 5G speeds become more available, it's also likely they will cost more per month to access. That is already the case with Verizon, which has some high-band 5G available in the U.S.; a top-tier data rate plan is required to use it.
Finally, the lack of a killer app that requires the power of 5G has yet to give businesses nor consumers an undeniable reason to upgrade. Uber and Lyft (which killed taxis) and video chatting apps (which have not exactly killed text messaging but have become the communication platform of choice for many — especially during the pandemic) would not work without 4G wireless connectivity. An app that would not work without a 5G device could be the convincing factor for many to make the switch and plug into an increasingly connected world. Telecommunications companies would like fixed wireless (in which a wireless connection replaces cable or DSL) to be one of those killer applications - effectively killing cable and DSL. Time (along with pricing and availability) will tell.
Elements of a Connected World are Coming
One of the most exciting advances 5G will bring is easier and increased connectivity. Technologies like fully connected and autonomous cars and remotely performed medical procedures have seen major hype as 5G architecture has been built out in recent years.
While these advancements are still not all the way there, as the connection sees more widespread adoption over the next two years, a variety of industries will see new elements of connectivity be realized. For example, while already enabled by 4G, automotive features like improved infotainment systems, over-the-air maintenance checks and software updates, and enhanced advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and vehicle-to-environment (V2X) systems are all likely to expand and improve as 5G becomes more available — putting more vehicles on the path to autonomy.
In the healthcare industry, 5G could be used to assist with the 4P approach to medicine: predictive, preventative, personalized and participatory. Patients could better monitor their everyday states of being and give medical providers earlier warning signs of potential problems, and new options for remote exams could open. PwC's 5G in healthcare report notes other potential use cases in the hospital setting, including patient monitoring and supply inventory. Healthcare is increasingly going digital, and more widespread 5G connections will make it easier for patients and providers to connect through online and app-based platforms, telemedicine and wearables for monitoring of vitals and symptoms — not to mention push healthcare companies to innovate within this space.
There has been some talk of the healthcare field using augmented reality (AR) for training purposes or imaging. While I'm not sure that widespread, advanced healthcare AR is immediately in our field of vision, for other purposes, AR most certainly is. As I mentioned, while the "killer app" hasn't broken through yet, when it does, I believe it could come from the augmented world.
Remember the Pokémon Go application, which had users looking at the world through their smartphone screen during the summer of 2016? Imagine that — but for everything. AR developers are no longer focused on wearables like Google Glass or Snapchat Spectacles. Even search engines are aware that these devices didn't quite resonate with consumers. One of the top search suggestions for each of these terms is, "Is it still a thing?"
This next-gen AR will take place in the palm of your hand, right on your phone. In fact, it already is. Apps created by retailers feature the most widely accessible forms of AR for consumers at this point. Both Sherwin-Williams and The Home Depot have apps that allow you to test colors by virtually "painting" a room in different shades. Target's app allows shoppers to view select pieces of furniture in their own space using AR. Even before the pandemic, Sephora encouraged people to use its AR-powered virtual try-on kiosks or app instead of using a traditional tester makeup product.
These apps will become more sophisticated with a 5G capable device as the amount of data that can be transmitted between your phone and the cloud increases, the connection speed increases and the latency decreases. Other possible 5G-powered AR applications include car maintenance tools. With AR, you could pop open the hood, point your phone's camera at the engine, and each part of the system would be labeled for you on your screen to help you determine which part is causing problems or fix the issue.
Business applications could also take advantage of AR on 5G. In the Deloitte report on the accelerating adoption of 5G by networking leaders, using AR to help remote employees collaborate or create advanced customer experiences was among the top reasons respondents said 5G adoption was important to them.
Another long-promised benefit of 5G is a tremendous boost to the number of IoT devices that can be connected to a system and to each other all at once. One technology 5G allows for is the narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT). Traditional 4G connections provide way more connection than the typical connected IoT device (say, a smart appliance) needs. That constant, intense connection wears down the device's battery life relatively quickly.
Instead of providing the full spectrum, NB-IoT gives the device just the sliver of the 5G connection that it needs to work - saving power and battery life and allowing that spectrum to cover far more devices than the 4G connection. NB-IoT is also optimized for indoor and underground connections, unlike traditional 4G connections.
In plainer terms, NB-IoT means that devices that don't use much data are all given small pieces of a very small piece of bandwidth. Devices that use a lot of data or send a lot of information get nice large chunks of a very large piece of frequency, so every device gets exactly the type of connection it needs.
One example of devices that could connect with the NB-IoT is Amazon's Alexa Sidewalk. This is a network of connected devices including Echo devices and Ring Floodlight and Spotlight Cams to help monitor the exterior of your home and even help find items like keys and pets with attached Tile trackers. The system uses a low-band data frequency with per monthly data usage capped at 500 MB — equivalent to streaming about 10 minutes of HD video — making it the perfect candidate to switch the NB-IoT on 5G for a more energy-efficient connection.
All told, this type of technology will accommodate our connected future. Estimates on the precise number vary, but the security company Norton estimates we'll see 25 billion IoT devices by 2025. The future is right around the corner.
5G in an Expanded World of Threats
A few people have asked me about 5G security. To answer this, I like to think about risk. Risk can be defined as the probability of an event multiplied by the impact of the event.
In a 5G world, the probability of a given data set or system being hacked doesn't change appreciably. What does change is that the speed at which a hack can be exploited could be 10 times faster. The likelihood of someone with nefarious intent downloading your entire inbox is the same. But now they can do it in five seconds instead of five minutes.
Additionally, 5G will enable more real-time and user specific data to be collected, so the number of data sources or systems could be increased. This is nothing to get panicked about, but rather something to understand and to mitigate accordingly through technologies available today - encryption, salting, and layered or tiered access to data.
In the race to make 5G a reality, the risks and benefits both get magnified. The security challenges will be no exception. Cisco recommends focusing on these five features in securing devices: threat prevention, advanced malware, anomaly detection, DNS intelligence and threat intelligence.
Most of us are already living a connected lifestyle. But when 5G becomes commercially available, that connectivity will get faster and more reliable than you can imagine. The vision we've built around the IoT will be amplified — and new opportunities will be born. As we march closer to mainstream adoption of 5G, a more connected world is almost within grasp, but it's up to the world's technology leaders to make sure we're prepared for it.
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