At the launch of the UK’s first 5G network on 30 May, much coverage was devoted to the incredibly fast download speeds and rock-solid connections it would provide consumers. This would herald a new dawn of mobile internet connectivity in which movies can be downloaded in seconds and data interruptions are consigned to the past.
But there’s much more to 5G than better browsing and Netflix streaming. Its most significant impact could be via its industrial uses, where it will provide a huge boost to the Internet of Things, autonomous technologies and virtual reality.
5G – what is it?
After 4G, it’s the next generation of mobile internet connectivity. Thanks to better use of the radio spectrum and enhanced background technologies, it boasts a number of advantages:
Under ideal conditions, 5G download speeds could be 20 times faster than 4G, reaching up to 10 GB/second. What does that mean? A two-hour movie could be downloaded in just four seconds versus six minutes on 4G. Wi-Fi connections will no longer be required for fast data transfer.
Latency is the time it takes data to travel from its source to its destination. On today’s 4G networks, that’s currently around 50-70 milliseconds, but 5G expects to improve this hugely, eventually taking it below just a single millisecond to quasi real time. That’s essential for accurate control of equipment like autonomous warehouse robots, self-driving vehicles or virtual reality headsets.
4G can support up to around 60,000 devices per square kilometre, but 5G will take this to more than a million – essential for the continued growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).
If 5G’s other advantages are evolutionary, this is more revolutionary. Network slicing allows operators to create and control subnetworks with specific characteristics tuned to the needs of individual users. A network for autonomous vehicles might prioritise low latency, for example, while an IoT network might be optimised for lower power consumption.
Impact on logistics
These changes have the potential to transform logistics, making processes faster, safer and more reliable, efficient and customer friendly. Below are just a few examples of how.
5G will enable warehouses and distribution centres to truly embrace high-powered robotics and automation. Drones and robots will be able to move faster and more efficiently to handle jobs like stock picking and inspection, allowing humans to focus on higher-level tasks.
The Internet of Things revolves around regular communication of data, which can put a strain on networks and the battery life of devices. But the greater power and efficiency of 5G will change this. Low-power tracking devices will enable deliveries to be traced in real time, giving clear visibility throughout the process.
Low-latency communication is a fundamental part of optimised autonomous vehicle technology. Driving systems will be able to react instantly to their surroundings, ensuring safe and efficient operations.
5G networks will enable more widespread and efficient use of virtual and augmented reality devices. Able to immediately detect and display valuable information, smart glasses can support areas like freight loading, warehouse operations and last-mile deliveries. Training and operational simulation via VR/AR will also become more common.
5G has huge potential, but its integration will take time as well as significant investment in equipment like devices, data centres and antennae. By 2025, it is expected to account for 15% of global connections, enabling the number of IoT connections to triple, a report says. Over the next 15 years, as that number continues to increase, it could contribute a massive $2.2 trillion to the global economy.