Real 5G is finally here, at least for a handful of customers in a small number of cities who are armed with one of the few 5G-capable devices. While not widespread, and with challenges like overheating base station equipment, still to be resolved, 5G is beginning the transition from hype to reality.
Tech leaders are actively engaged in reformulating corporate strategies, often with little more than conceptual descriptions of embryonic technologies to guide their decisions. Chief information officers have continually heard 5G will revolutionize business, but most remain unsure of the problems they will soon be asked to solve and the capabilities they must provision.
At this point in the 5G implementation cycle, good questions are more important than solid answers, and continued flexibility will be essential as the full potential of 5G is steadily achieved.
5G features enable new technologies
After extensive promotion, the features of 5G are widely understood. The mobile pipeline will get fatter, with a 200x increase in volumetric flow. With heightened data capacity, complex applications will load almost instantly, and bandwidth will no longer deter 3D video streaming, augmented reality (AR), and other data-intensive solutions.
Moreover, uplink capacity will be higher, expanding possibilities for cloud-first strategies, consumer gaming, and more. Latency will drop to a lightning-fast 4ms at first and, later, under 1ms — a level of responsiveness essentially indistinguishable from real-time.
Lower-power, battery-saving sensors will also connect reliably, unleashing IoT. Finally, networks will be fluid and sliced-to-order for various use cases, ranging from the rare but urgent alert from a factory production line to the constant, higher bandwidth, latency-intolerant demands of autonomous vehicles.
Short- and long-term planning
The 5G feature list is impressive, but what does it mean for the enterprise or the SMB, and what can be done now to prepare?
First, CIOs should be planning their investments. These will include modest spending to leverage 5G access, such as incorporating antennas, upgrading employee smartphones and other company-supplied devices, and building out internal network capacity and accelerating virtualization to handle exponential data traffic growth.
The more challenging investments will center on the emerging technologies 5G enables. CIOs should be asking how the organization can benefit from IoT, augmented and virtual reality, and AI-based analytics applied to newly available data streams. What are the implementation costs and the expected ROI? How can investments be staged to align with the multi-year 5G roll-out?
To take one example, the traditional on-site, nine-to-five labor model will further diversify. As reliable, high-speed mobile coverage blankets the nation, robust telecommuting opportunities will expand beyond major metropolitan areas and empower organizations to integrate talent from currently untapped locales. Better tools will enable “in-person like” engagement and collaboration, and organizations will have the means to provide employees with more information, such as AR-generated schematic overlays for field technicians, wherever their work takes them. Eventually, work may not take employees anywhere at all, as robot-assisted technologies, such as telesurgery and remote tactile inspection, expand distance-work opportunities beyond office staff to hands-on professionals as well.
Navigating the unknowns
Unfortunately, there is no road map to the yet-to-be-conceived solutions of the 5G tomorrow. Forward-thinking leaders must pose technology-aware, customer-centric questions to formulate the most compelling set of use cases. This probing must balance a willingness to challenge accepted business models with a tempered approach to technology investment and implementation. Considerations for decision-makers include the following:
- Who needs to be at the table for 5G planning? How do we cast a wide net for ideas and subsequently narrow the initial focus to those capable of delivering the greatest positive impact?
- What data strategies will enable the organization to manage the costs, compliance issues, and security risks of the forthcoming data tsunami?
- When should we buy in to 5G? What do we hope to achieve and how much of it is possible with current, mature technologies? What flags will indicate the time for adoption has arrived?
- Where can we apply IoT sensors across our facilities, use AR tools in our workflows, benefit from higher quality imaging, and otherwise leverage emerging technologies expected to develop?
- Why do we need to get “smarter” and how can we leverage 5G to build the intelligent ecosystem to support these enhancements?
- How will we learn the skills, attract the talent, or hire the specialists we need to execute this transition, when most other organizations will be seeking similar knowledge?
These are just a few possible questions, and most answers will be preliminary and subject to change. After hankering for 5G, CIOs may find themselves thankful for the slow roll-out and the inevitable lag between 5G availability and the invention, refinement, and commercialization of long-promised next gen technologies. It may be just enough time to evolve.
Gordon Smith is the President and CEO of Sagent. He brings a great depth of experience in developing customer programs, building industry partnerships and expanding service offerings for telecom carrier and cable MSO networks. Prior to joining Sagent, Smith was VP of services at Tempest Telecom Solutions. Gordon is a licensed professional engineer and holds a master’s degree in business administration from Goizueta Business School at Emory University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Waterloo (Canada).
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