I've written about 5G mobile communications on and off, and it has to be acknowledged that it is mostly a side issue in the day-to-day machinations of being a CIO. Following the brouhaha about Huawei and communications security, it is probably only fitting that 5G has retreated to the back burners as a subject for discussion. What mainstream news coverage there has been has largely focused on the traditional market for smartphones - end users and their current chances of exploiting it.
But the big market for 5G is still largely untouched, not least because the build-out of the new network infrastructure required is nowhere near complete. It is growing however, and next year should see that big market take off. That market is business use - and not just the direct consumer contact and interaction applications currently in use over the existing 4G network and technologies.
This time 'business use' will mean a significant contribution to the expansion in both reach and capabilities of business infrastructure. It will, more importantly, be far more dependent on collaboration between a far wider range of applications and service providers than ever before. CIOs will need to be aware of these collaborations and know that they are in place, for no single company or brand will be able to provide the coverage and resources their products or services will require.
In short, businesses will need to start operating in entirely new ways, using even more data of varying types across a far wider range of locations, all at far greater speed and bandwidth, and often with the goal of using new business processes to meet new business goals that are currently only sketchy ideas.
This is something that will be of direct and very pertinent interest to CIOs across the board, for while all businesses will be able to exploit it, many will mess it up first time round, and some will feel the pain of believing that it doesn’t apply to them. However, over the next five or so years, it will be a rare business that is not affected by 5G and what it can provide.
Benchmarking for the future
To get an overview of how 5G is going, where it is heading and what some collaboration issues might be, I grabbed the chance to talk with Dr Paul Carter, CEO of Global Wireless Solutions. This is a company that, for the last 25 years or so, has been benchmarking mobile wireless networks in action around the world, though the USA has for most of that time been its primary focus. The benchmarks include capabilities such as coverage, throughputs, dropped call rates, blocked call rates, and voice quality. But the company also logs engineering level information, such as where, how and why a call drops. This data is sold back to the service operators for them to identify and resolve solutions, and to understand where and why they're different to their competitors in terms of the evolution of their deployments. Carter explained:
We’ve added in the capability to do surveys and we've become quite focused in in the area of consumer and business insights. We also poll businesses to understand how they want to use these networks, what they like and don't like about them, what's working, what's not working, and so on. So now we’ve developed a scoring methodology called One Score, that combines consumer perception with measures of behavior, and brings the two together.
The company now has tens of thousands of people in the US that have opted into a consumer panel, allowing it to track their mobile phone usage, how much time they spend on their phone, who they are, their location, age, income, and what apps they're using. This certainly indicates that the initial take up of 5G is where one might expect it – the bleeding edge early adopters amongst the consumer user community looking to view super ultra high definition videos (or whatever the next standard is). There will be many improvements to existing categories of consumer applications, but 4G has already been the spawning ground for most of them.
However, roll out is not happening fast. Carter sees it being around 2028 before 5G coverage is close to mass adoption in the 90% region and even then the biggest problems are going to come from the diversity of players that will want to participate – and will need to work together very closely:
To really roll out 5G and see a successful leapfrog in technology it's going to take time and a lot of parties to come together in a co-ordinated manner. We talk about autonomous cars: it's not the wireless operators - the Ericksons and Nokias - that are going to deploy the wireless cars it's the car manufacturers. It's a whole new set of companies that we don't even know today but they're going to be integral to the point that you see them actually running the wireless network. I understand that companies like BMW are thinking this way: you buy a BMW and you run it on the BMW network exclusively.
As he mused, this could mean that if a car maker doesn't – or can’t - extend its own network to certain areas or countries there will be no point in buying their vehicle. Even if it could, it would be very hard pressed – to say the least – to ensure sufficient reliability to ensure no down time in providing services to vehicle users. This would be similar, right now, to any car maker demanding that customers can only drive their car on that brand’s roads or use that brand’s fuel supply.
The biggest hindrance to the development of 5G in business is likely to be that businesses themselves will not understand the essential nature of the interdependencies between services and service providers, allowing users the widest possible range of options in sourcing the data and management services they will require.
Pilots just starting
Taking vehicles and autonomous driving as one of the obvious examples of this, the UK is only just starting a pilot programme to investigate the use of street furniture as the way to deliver digital services wirelessly. Technically this is no longer a difficult issue – companies like Alibaba have been developing and building out such services for Chinese road traffic junctions for at least three years now. It is likely, however, that the biggest problems here will not be technical, but rather issues such as obtaining planning permission and meeting health and safety regulations. This will be particularly likely if multiple service providers require to have Points of Presence at the same locations. Shared resources are likely to be necessary and also a major stumbling block, said Carter:
That's still where we're at, to try and bring all this together. We still don't know what the street assets are, it's not necessarily in a digital database that we can access and then apply through some online process to get to that facility to get access to basic information like traffic lights, so that you can then build autonomous networks so that cars can communicate car to car.
Outside of the US, Global Wireless Solutions is involved with the National Innovation Network for 5G developments in the UK, sponsored by the government Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Spot (DCMS). It is also involved with UK universities in a consortium called Project VISTA. This is a sports stadium project using 5G resources to allow viewing of multiple video streams of the action what at the event. The goal is to allow every individual at the event to select the camera angle they want, when they want it, a data management issue of far greater complexity than the one-to-many approach of traditional broadcast TV.
This requirement for widespread collaboration across both network and applications service providers will be the reason that 5G does not spawn a classic `killer app’. Instead, it is much more likely to be a key part of the essential infrastructure of a wide range of killer apps and services. Some of those, with the coming of edge computing being the most likely candidate, will themselves be the underpinning of the killer apps that businesses and consumer users will identify with.