Unlike previous technology advancements, the adoption of the fifth generation of mobile network standards – known as 5G – is going to be enterprise, not consumer, led.
The network capability already exists to provide 5G for factories, arenas and universities, for example. This will suit innovative enterprises with the imagination to take full advantage of this “campus capability” before the full national rollouts of 5G that will be required for the consumer market.
I believe the 5G mobile network will start by enabling manufacturing’s fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0 as it is commonly known, and transform sectors including industrial manufacturing, defence, infrastructure and healthcare.
5G is expected to generate a variety of new applications and business cases for enterprises, many of which have yet to be imagined, for example, high-definition video/imagery and voice will likely supplant the keyboard as the main computing input mechanism. This would not be possible without 5G as a key enabler, as its power and speed will be needed to manage a new tsunami of data.
Government has a crucial role to play in allowing 5G and Industry 4.0 to deliver their full potential – not least in ensuring they are properly secure.
It is vital that the 5G network is secured, as it will almost certainly lead to sensors and other devices communicating and making decisions independently of humans. If these decisions are to be trusted, then it is vital to be certain that no malicious code has been injected.
The first generation of IoT technologies had little or no security, as the perceived threat was small, and it was prohibitively expensive and difficult to introduce into small sensors. Sadly, cyber-attacks by both state actors and criminals have shown that there is a very real risk and it must be addressed.
To take one example, autonomous vehicles could be given a bespoke route through a city by roadside transceivers, enabling authorities to optimise the use of the road network – but an attacker could subvert such equipment to cause gridlock, or worse.
5G will increase networks’ speed and decrease their latency, the latter being the time it takes for a device to receive a response. On the former, 5G will allow connections to work at many gigabits a second, compared with what is generally around a hundred megabits with the current 4G standard, while latency times will fall to a few milliseconds from over 45.
5G technology has been designed to support as many as one million devices per square kilometre – ten times the density possible with the 4G network. In other words, 5G will allow the connection of billions of devices across the world, from citizens to building materials to factory equipment.
This mass connection will enable Industry 4.0, projected to be worth trillions of pounds a year in a few years’ time, powering machine-to-machine communication, augmented decision support and demand-driven supply chains. Although the concept has been over-hyped in its early days, we are beginning to see manufacturers starting to adopt it at scale and 5G will be the fundamental enabler for mass adoption.
While 5G will not be controlled by governments, it can’t happen without them. At the most basic level, many countries will need to free up radio spectrum, which is currently used for other things such as satellite and radar systems.
Some government agencies will have a role to play in opening access to 5G, which allocates devices a specific slice of a network rather than sharing bandwidth. This makes it potentially viable for facilities, such as military airfields, to securely share bandwidth with civilians. In some countries where commercial networks do a poor job of serving rural areas, providing access to military connections could significantly help to connect remote communities and bridge the digital divide.
More broadly, 5G will disrupt government agencies and companies in ways that will require governments to regulate. It will allow more use of augmented and artificial intelligence, but may need rules on what decisions can be delegated to machines and when humans need to be ‘in the loop’, particularly in the military environment.
5G could revolutionise some healthcare services, such as allowing earlier detection of serious conditions through remote analysis of vital signs collected by body-worn devices, but this would require regulation on how such information is used.
The need for government regulation is particularly clear for autonomous vehicles. It is not possible to have truly self-driving cars until they can rapidly communicate what they plan to do next, and 5G will allow this. In an emergency, where there is no time to involve a human, vehicles may have to choose between two bad outcomes, such as whether to prioritise the safety of passengers or people outside. It will be down to governments to set the ethical and legal rules for machines to follow. Some governments, including Germany’s, have already started grappling with such questions.
Security is fundamental to 5G’s success and this may be where government interventions are most important. As discussed, IoT devices based on earlier wireless standards are notorious for poor security. It is now possible to fit more processing power into tiny devices, but more importantly, 5G has the capacity to incorporate security at the network level.
5G’s use in Industry 4.0 will be particularly dependent on good security, partly because of recently introduced laws. As my colleagues, Michael Bremicker and Doug Gates, discussed in their recent report ‘Beyond the hype’, manufacturing increasingly uses data from customers, for custom-produced goods to allow feedback to drive continuous improvement. Tighter data security laws, including Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), mean that data breaches can lead to large fines and reputational damage.
Companies also need to guard against the theft of their intellectual property, particularly in additive manufacturing where data is used to generate the product, as well as against cyber-attacks. 'Secure 5G’ will be a key instrument for protecting the nation’s critical national infrastructure, which includes the energy, banking and telco sectors.
5G holds huge promise for a range of industries. But while this is a technology that will be led by enterprises, it will only succeed if governments set industry-specific regulations and ensure devices and networks are well-secured.
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