5G is the fifth generation of mobile network standards set by the International Telecommunication Union, although it is also used more loosely as a marketing term. 4G, established a decade ago, refers to connections working at up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps). Technology suppliers are already demonstrating systems that can work at 4 Gbps, and 5G technologies aim to increase this further. 5G will also feature much decreased latency times - the delay between sending a signal and getting a response - of just a few milliseconds.
In my view, the countries which lead the introduction of 5G internet technology will have the opportunity to lead the digital economy. 5G, which allows download speeds of many gigabits per second and latency response times in the milliseconds, is going to deliver exponential change. And with organizations due to see the first 5G equipment in 2019 and the first chips in consumer mobile devices in 2020, it is a change that is nearly upon us.
Having heard the hype from 2G to 3G to 4G, people can be forgiven for thinking this is just the next evolutionary step. But it is much more than that. I see 5G as a revolution as fundamental as the building of railways.
While consumers will enjoy faster mobile devices, the greater benefits will be in the enterprise market, the connected factories, logistics, transportation, workforces and agriculture. 5G offers the opportunity to secure the internet-enabled products and processes of Industry 4.0, where equipment and sensors are communicating directly with each other and making decisions independently of humans. What has constrained its use to date has been limited mobile bandwidth and the ability to do things securely fast enough. 5G can provide this.
5G offers a significant opportunity to greatly improve mobile security, in that it provides the availability, bandwidth and speed to support strong end-to-end encryption with negligible impact on performance. Initially, the Internet of Things was deliberately designed with no security due to the difficulty at that time of building protection into small sensors. Furthermore, people didn't think there would be a need for security on sensors, but increasing numbers of cyber-attacks by organized criminals and nation states have shown why this must be addressed.
5G's ability to connect mobile devices means that we could see something specific coming out of broad concepts like smart cities and digital government, and in areas such as public health, public safety, security and defense. Imagine a mobile military brigade with superfast 5G connectivity provided by an umbrella of four or five drones flying overhead. You would need another hundred or so other drones to provide cover for those providing the 5G network, but if some of these got shot down it would still be a lot cheaper than current methods of providing communications.
Similarly, imagine a 5G network to support an incident control point for public safety, provided by equipment mounted on vehicles that could be driven to where it was needed. What now tends to happen in a crisis is that local networks go down, either because too many people want to get on it or there is insufficient power. The ability to deliver 5G remotely is something that is going to have a massive impact in the future.
Some organizations will struggle to cope with the tsunami of data that is going to be unleashed by 5G. But it represents a real opportunity for those that do have the skills and technological ability to take advantage of the rich insights it will give them.
However, for many government organizations the current acquisition process could get in the way of adopting 5G, as it does for any fast-developing technology. In my former role in the UK Ministry of Defence I sought to change the procurement process from one where we were seeking to procure for atomized requirements, with six-inch thick system and user requirement documents and hundreds of measures of performance, to contracting for outcomes, where you understand the outcome you are seeking to achieve and realize that it could emerge along the way. It requires a completely different approach and a drive from the top.
What 5G enables is the ability to deliver high network availability, high bandwidth and low latency delay times to the edge of networks - i.e., mobile devices and sensors - in a way that we have not been able to do to date. I absolutely believe that this is revolutionary and will be a fundamental enabler of the digital economy, including artificial intelligence, analytics, internet of things, augmented and virtual reality, as well as robotics including driverless vehicles. There will be a huge first-mover advantage.
5G is real and it is just around the corner. Organizations need to think about when equipment and services will become commercially available, how they are going to plan for this and how they can take advantage of early adoption, issues I will discuss in forthcoming articles.