Businesses small and large will be able to use 5G technology to improve operations, better serve customers, and leapfrog competitors. The 5G wave is fast approaching. If you’re not sure what that means, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Despite its ability to change how companies across industries do business, the next-generation cellular network still remains widely misunderstood.
Most media coverage has focused on the technology’s ability to deliver faster speeds—around 20 times that of 4G. However, this only represents one component of the disruption and enterprise capabilities that 5G is poised to deliver, for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses alike.
Below, we unpack the truth behind five common misconceptions about 5G and its impact on businesses large and small.
1. 5G is just about speed.
Much of the buzz around 5G has focused on the potential to enhance speed. It’s understandable; download and upload speeds alike on some types of 5G connections will be ridiculously fast—downloading an entire movie in 35 seconds, for instance, vs. 27 minutes on an average LTE network today.
Yet the attention on speed, while warranted, can detract from 5G’s other, equally impactful benefits. “5G is a broad and versatile technology. It’s not about one thing like speed or one use-case like fixed-wireless access,” says Karri Kuoppamaki, Vice President, Technology Development and Strategy at T-Mobile who plays a key role in the company’s 5G deployment. Instead, “it’s about building on what is in place today while at the same time improving it, and perhaps more importantly, expanding the scope of wireless technologies to new capabilities, services, segments, and enterprise services that have specific requirements that today’s technologies don’t address but 5G can.”
Far greater than 4G, 5G’s bandwidth will provide the wide-scale ubiquitous coverage necessary for devices (from phones to cars) to interface with one another and their surroundings. And its low latency—the ability for the network to process data with short, almost non-existent lag time—could eliminate barriers for use cases like self-driving cars or virtual reality, which require near-instantaneous feedback. (Imagine how an even seconds-long delay could affect the safety of your ride.) 5G also promises to unlock significantly improved battery life which is a boon for various Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
“5G is a platform for innovation,” says Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, an industry analyst and director at Strategy Analytics. She believes that wide-ranging versatility, rather than one or two features, makes the technology truly revolutionary and capable of not only improving a dizzying array of operations but enabling entirely new ones. Welsh de Grimaldo continues saying, in the future, a 5G network will power interconnected cities, autonomous cars, and automated manufacturing, which are just a few examples of applications that 4G can’t fully support today.
2. 5G technology is only relevant for big businesses.
Will Townsend, a senior industry analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, says, “a lot of times when people talk about 5G, it’s very grand. It’s autonomous driving, it’s smart factories” or applications that enterprises with big budgets can only afford. “However, the delivery of real-time, high-resolution mobile video capabilities given the low latency will unlock a host of use cases for smaller businesses, from technical troubleshooting in the field to immersive service delivery.”
Many small business owners still have challenges with getting affordable, consistent internet connectivity–an issue that is even greater for businesses in rural communities who have been left on the wrong side of the digital divide. “For small businesses in particular, one of the problems has been a lack of competitive options when it comes to connectivity,” says Anshel Sag, an industry analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy. “I think with 5G, you are going to start seeing a lot more competition in having affordable and fast internet connectivity. The corresponding implications are important for small businesses, from fundamentals such as reliable mobile coverage to next-generation use-cases like VR-based collaboration tools and predictive maintenance systems.”
“Each new era of connectivity helps level the playing field for small business,” says Mike Katz, Executive Vice President, T-Mobile for Business, who leads the company’s B2B strategy. “Before 4G, services such as ridesharing, cloud storage and new mobile social media applications weren’t possible at scale. The 3G networks that preceded 4G simply weren’t fast, strong, or reliable enough to process the vast amounts of data required to make them a great experience. 5G represents the opportunity for an exponentially larger leap forward than previous wireless network upgrades so the potential scale of change will be much greater—for small, medium and large businesses alike.”
3. 5G and 4G are not compatible.
Historically, each iteration of wireless network technology has replaced the previous generation. “Today, if you have a smartphone, it can connect to 2G, 3G, or 4G—but only one at a time,” Kuoppamaki says.
Not so with 5G, which is “the first technology generation that will allow devices to connect to both 5G and 4G LTE at the same time.” In other words, 5G doesn’t supersede 4G, it enhances it. As 5G networks continue to mature they will rely, at least at first, on 4G capabilities. “It’s going to be the best of both worlds in terms of experience,” Kuoppamaki says.
On a practical level, this means many applications that work fine on 4G—such as video conferencing, smartphones, and augmented reality—will experience gradual improvements as 5G is added to the existing 4G network.
4. The technology is glitchy and won’t work in buildings.
5G does not operate at its best on a single spectrum. Instead, it can be deployed on three main layers, each with its own strengths, which complement one another. Low-band spectrum, typically a spectrum below 1GHz, can provide wide, consistent coverage that doesn’t require a high data transfer but is critical to enabling nationwide 5G coverage, including in rural areas still struggling to connect to high-speed internet. It is also capable of supporting extended battery life for IoT devices, some up to 10 years.
Next is mid-band spectrum—usually between 1GHz and 6GHz—a high-capacity, low-latency spectrum capable of handling use cases such as augmented reality, wearables, and critical IoT applications that need near-instantaneous data response rates. Unfortunately, most mid-band spectrum is unavailable for 5G because it’s already in use for 4G LTE, and redeploying spectrum will take time. And at the top, there are the ultra-high frequencies, such as millimeter wave, typically a spectrum above 24GHz, which can be deployed to provide lightning-fast data speed, far greater capacity, quality, and low latency, but do not travel far, and can’t penetrate buildings or even windows.
“In practical deployments of mmWave spectrum, we’ve seen cell ranges of anywhere between a couple hundred feet to maybe a thousand feet or so,” Kuoppamaki says. High frequencies also don’t penetrate objects well, which has led to the belief that 5G doesn’t work in buildings. While millimeter wave “is very good for high traffic hot spots in an urban environment,” Kuoppamaki says, “in and of itself it’s not the answer to 5G. However, most applications don’t need ultra-high speeds; they need consistent coverage.”
Lower frequencies are “able to go through concrete walls and brick in a way a millimeter wave signal never could,” says Sag. Once the network is mature, the interplay of all three spectrums means “you will be able to get more signal in more places than you ever could before.” Sag noted that this will ultimately unlock new, innovative solutions for next-generation applications that require high-bandwidth, low latency and always-on connectivity such as self-driving cars and drone delivery.
5. 5G won’t be available for at least a couple years
“People’s biggest apprehension is that the technology is not ready…but I think businesses should be constantly re-assessing whether 5G makes sense for them today, and constantly looking at what offerings are available in their area,” Sag says. “Things are changing so quickly; maybe 5G doesn’t make sense for your business today, but there is a possibility that in five months the network will change drastically and it’s now to your benefit to have 5G.”
By the end of 2019, businesses and consumers will experience “the first taste of what 5G is all about and what its capabilities are,” Kuoppamaki says. In terms of rollout, “history is a great teacher.” The first 4G networks were launched about a decade ago; while the user experience was vastly superior to 3G, it took time for people and businesses to understand its capabilities.
“That’s the beauty of 5G: it’s a transformational power that may not be evident from day one but, once available everywhere, will start stimulating innovation very quickly,” Kuoppamaki says.