5G and the land of dreams
“Look all you want, but don’t touch anything!” – I can’t begin to count the times I’ve told that to my kids in places like supermarkets or museums. But let’s be honest. We adults also love to touch, too. For example, we want our IT systems to be “hands-on” systems, to a certain extent. In the past, that usually hasn’t been feasible, at least not in the way we would like. Now, 5G could be a game-changer in this regard.
5G in office collaboration
Some think tanks have already been experimenting with new collaboration functions such as virtual whiteboards, which enable real-time collaborative development of ideas, supported by functionality such as gesture-controlled sketching and animation. In a real sense, such systems are “hands-on” IT systems. For some people, the appeal of such systems lies in enhanced efficiency. For others, it’s in the “cool” experience. While such systems may seem enticing, I have to admit that I’m happy with the functionalities my current desktop environment offers me. (Ok, it would be nice if large downloads from OneDrive could be a little faster.) Yet the enhancements that we might call “better convenience” or a “better user experience” in some work situations might well be assessed as “essential” in other situations.
Real-time applications in production companies
Think, for example, of production companies that operate sprawling campuses with all kinds of things going on at once. Cable-bound data transmission is ideal for machines and systems with fixed locations. It is less than ideal for moving objects, however, and for the highly flexible set-ups now used in many operations. Or could you conceive of a fleet of cable-bound forklifts?
Modern production operations need wireless networks. Wi-Fi networks offer useful options for interconnecting mobile systems on operating sites, for purposes such as ensuring that systems can always be found. But Wi-Fi technology has its limitations. For example, it can prove inadequate for interconnection of tens of thousands of small devices and components – or for support of complex functions such as autonomous driving, which require real-time interaction and real-time handovers between radio cells.
If you want to have mobile robots ferrying heavy loads around a production site, you have to ensure that the robots can appropriately respond to any changes in their immediate environments. Changes such as unexpected obstructions, for example. A robot might suddenly find its pathway blocked by a pallet left by a deliveryman who needed to use the restroom, or by two human workers conversing over a quick cigarette. In sum, safety can depend on real-time functionality. And it can do so in everyday situations that are far-removed from anything dramatic or life-threatening (such as fires, with responding firefighters using connected devices).
No more speed limits
The coming 5G age promises to put an end – at least temporarily – to speed limits on data transfers. When it comes to 5G, one could be forgiven for thinking of the Olympic motto, “faster, higher, stronger.” In comparison to the current LTE standard (4G), 5G will support tenfold-higher transmission rates, and 5G networks will be able to provide reliable quality of service to far greater numbers of connected devices. At their inception, 4G/LTE systems supported download rates of up to 300 Mbit/s. In today’s advanced modes, those rates have gone up to 1 Gbit/s. Theoretically, that is. 5G promises to provide 10 Gbit/s – a factor-10 increase that will be an important milestone. With such speed, 1-TB downloads will take only 100 seconds.
5G technology is the stuff of dreams, and not only for telecommunications-services providers. It is a new technology that promises to provide the basis for all kinds of ideas that have been unfeasible until now, due to the limitations of mobile networks. It’s thus no surprise that, in June of this year, telecommunications companies were willing to pay over 6 billion euros for 5G spectrum in Germany.
Users eager to tap the power of 5G
In terms of acceptance of 5G, I think the following is even more significant: In the second half of this year, a number of major corporate users, such as Bosch, BASF, VW, Daimler and Siemens, plan to bid for spectrum that will enable them to establish their own 5G campus networks. Such companies have recognized the added value that 5G can provide for their business. 5G offers them a wealth of ways to enhance their efficiency, increase their flexibility and try out new ideas – such as using industrial Internet of Things (IoT) solutions in connection with mobile, yet centralized, production control; machine and systems monitoring (predictive maintenance); and extensive use of augmented-reality applications. Instead of building all-5G networks, some corporations may opt for “dual slice” campus networks, which combine a private network with the public network on one and the same campus infrastructure – thereby killing two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Yes, 5G is a great basic technology, in and of itself, but its real added value will emerge via 5G-based integrated solutions spanning a spectrum from connectivity to data analysis. Without such solutions, the dream will always be just a dream.
My prediction: Campus networks for digital and smart factories will be among the first live applications for 5G. But it will be some time before a virtual whiteboard materializes in my office (or my home office). Now I’m wondering when I’ll be saying, in my own workspace, “Look all you want, and feel free to touch, too.”