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5G: a transformative technology

Healthcare, transport, IoT – expect fundamental change across many industries

‘4G has been about connecting people, 5G will be about connecting everything that can be connectede.’ Photograph: iStock

‘4G has been about connecting people, 5G will be about connecting everything that can be connectede.’ Photograph: iStock

 

A bit like electricity, 5G technology is not a solution in itself. Rather, it is an enabler of other solutions. Its two key attributes, fearsomely fast speeds and near instantaneous response times – low latency to the experts – bring a whole range of new solutions in reach which were the stuff of sci-fi up until now.

Take the internet of things (IoT), 5G brings with it the capability to connect millions of sensors and devices to automate a factory, manage traffic in a busy city, or monitor the water quality along every metre of a riverbed.

Indeed, such is the range of possibilities for the new technology that we are likely to be spoilt for choice, in the short term at least. “As our study ‘5G for business: a 2030 market compass’ highlights, a significant proportion of future investments across various industries is expected to be driven by new and advanced services based on 5G technology,” says Con Kennedy, chief technical officer, Ericsson Ireland.

“However, one of the key challenges for service providers will be identifying which areas to prioritise for future growth,” he notes. “Even if 5G networks are rolled out faster than expected, the expectations across industries are that the ramp up of 5G-enabled use cases is likely to happen later than previously anticipated. The main reason here is that it has taken industries longer to move into sophisticated digitalised use cases, as they are still pushing basic functionality.”

He says 5G investments, deployments and marketing efforts in most countries have been focused more on the consumer market, which naturally has an impact on 5G enterprise market potential as well.

“According to our study, which outlines existing drivers and barriers and provides guidance for how to succeed in new markets, healthcare represents the largest addressable market, followed by manufacturing, energy and utilities, and automotive. All industries represent significant value pools to service providers but also represent different barriers to entry. It is likely we will find the most transformative use cases in critical IoT, where the speed, latency and security of the 5G network will be key.”

Vodafone technology director Didier Clavero says there are masses of uses cases for 5G.

“4G has been about connecting people, 5G will be about connecting everything that can be connected where there is a benefit to connecting them.”

One sector where he sees immediate potential is healthcare. “Vodafone has a strategic partnership with the Assert centre (Application of the Science of Simulation to Education, Research and Medical Technology) in University College Cork which has made it the first 5G connected telemedicine and medical robotics training centre in the world,” he says.

“The centre enables clinicians, industry and academics across a broad spectrum of healthcare research, to design, develop, deploy and trial innovative and disruptive healthcare solutions, in a simulated healthcare environment that deliver real world solutions for healthcare problems in the developed and developing world. It showcases real-time monitoring, telemedicine, and robotic surgery, integrated with wearable mobile IoT-based devices.”

“We are seeing a lot of healthcare applications being researched for development at the moment,” says Vodafone IoT country manager Debbie Power. “Machines being developed for robotic surgery. The surgeon can be in one part of the globe and the patient in another. The robot carries out the surgery directed by the surgeon. This is potentially very big.”

There are also applications in consumer health. “It will assist in the remote care and management of chronic disease and will help keep patients at home,” she says. “Wearable devices will send data back to centres of excellence where the results will be analysed and used to help prevent a stroke or a heart attack. The devices will be able to send warning signs about the wearer to the clinic. This is very interesting from a global perspective. Think about places like Africa where access to medical expertise is very low; it could have life-changing impacts.”

Cars

The automotive sector is another industry where the technology will prove critical. Autonomous cars will be reliant on 5G technology if they are ever to take to the roads in any numbers. The low latency of 5G connectivity means that signals from the cars can be processed almost instantaneously from remote locations ensuring the cars’ safety and control systems are fully operational. But this will not come about immediately, according to Clavero.

“First we will see 5G connected drones,” he says. “And there are many other applications we are exploring that will all come together in autonomous cars, probably around 2025.”

“5G is transformational,” says PwC energy leader Ger O’Mahoney. “At PwC we have taken the decision to issue everyone with 5G enabled phones to allow them avail of the opportunities presented by the new technology. We want to maximise the benefits for our business. We can download and access data from anywhere now. It mightn’t have worked before now because of network speeds or file sizes. I have reduced my visits to Dublin by around 25 per cent as a result of being able use Google Hangouts from remote locations.

“It will enable smart cities and it will be faster than any existing public wifi network,” he adds. “There is no limit to the business cases it can be put to. The biggest issue of all will be battery power and how power is stored. That will create more opportunities around sustainable energy supply to 5G connected devices.”

Early uptake

According to Power, the early uptake and ongoing evolution of the technology are likely to differ. “It looks as if the greatest early uptake will be in manufacturing,” she says. “It is estimated that over $1 trillion will be invested in 5G technologies worldwide by 2025 and $700 billion of that will be in manufacturing. We are seeing that pattern in Ireland as well.”

This is possibly because it is easier to deploy than in other areas and the use case is clear with automation being the big prize. “Manufacturing looks at small cell deployment within buildings and can be easier to deploy as a consequence. One use would be for IoT in the smart manufacturing systems which underpin Industry 4.0. It will allow manufacturers to get as much out of their existing investments as possible. The use of cobotics [collaborative robotics] is exploding and 5G is enabling that as well.”

While speed and responsiveness may be key to the functionality of the technology, reliability is vitally important. After all, you don’t want the robot to stop halfway through your heart operation because the network has gone down.

“Resilience is hugely important,”says Clavero. “When robotic surgery, telemedicine and autonomous cars are reliant on the network it just cannot be allowed to fail. We are not talking about the five nines [99.999 per cent] availability of traditional networks. It has to have a much higher level of reliability.”