One of the most hyped technologies this year has been 5G, the fifth generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are investing heavily in rolling out their high-speed 5G networks and advertising in consumer markets.
But on the organizational side, the potential benefits and drawbacks of 5G are not always clearly articulated. For some of our members, 5G will offer significant advantages. For others, 5G might have relatively little impact.
“We are still in the early days of 5G,” said Michael Finneran, president, dBrn Associates, at an Enterprise Virtual Connect session in August. “But now is the time for enterprises to look at some of the macro issues in the wireless space that could potentially turn 5G and the existing cellular industry on its ear.”
A quick look at 5G
To deliver faster wireless service, expand bandwidth availability and deliver a better user experience, 5G providers are taking advantage of the millimeter wave (mmWave) radio spectrum. These short wavelength signals have far less range than other cellular frequencies, which allows telecom providers to set up networks of low-power small cells that share the same bandwidth with connections to traditional macro cell towers.
However, mmWave signals rely on “line of sight” transmissions and walls, trees and buildings can limit those connections. That means carriers will need dense deployments of small cells, outdoors and indoors in order to deliver high-speed data services for mobile broadband users and IoT sensors and devices.
Promising use cases
The nationwide rollout of 5G networks offers several promising use case scenarios, including support for employees who work from home (WFH) or at other remote workspaces.
One of the challenges of moving from an office workspace to a WFH environment during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the scattered availability of high-speed Internet connections. Some employees have no problem participating in a video conference call with their team members while other family members are also online, sharing the same cable modem or wifi connection. But others may only be able to join with an audio call or need to chat via text because of limited bandwidth availability.
Adding one or more 5G micro cells to the home environment can be an effective and inexpensive way to resolve that problem. In fact, 5G is designed to support a 10x or 100x increase in download speeds – a huge advantage for collaboration applications in multiple workspaces. In that regard, 5G can provide a foundation for advances in communication technology, such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and massive 3D videos, which can be difficult to access in a remote setting with limited bandwidth.
A 5G small cell network can also increase bandwidth capacity in crowded indoor and outdoor settings, such as a sports stadium. Picture a post-COVID football game, auto race or soccer match, where tens of thousands of fans want access to reliable, high-speed data services all at the same time. Rather than bring in additional cellular capacity for a big event, an organization could deploy hundreds of small cells on site.
Other potential locations for 5G networks include airports, train stations and cruise ship terminals, where demand is likely to skyrocket once travelers return to a “new normal” environment. Schools, colleges and universities can also deploy 5G networks in their auditoriums, gyms and other classroom settings. This allows students, faculty and staff to have a shared high-speed online experience with interactive collaborative technologies.
Not for every workspace
On the other hand, DTUWC members located in small town and rural areas may need to look for improvements from 4G providers, rather than investing in 5G infrastructure. The limited range of small cells may make it impractical to extend 5G service to a small factory or branch office 100 miles from the main workplace.
However, micro cells could still be installed in the homes of remote workers, provided the current broadband 3G or 4G service could handle the increased capacity between home and office.
In summary, 5G networks can bring major improvements to data-heavy remote work applications, while increasing online capacity in dense indoor and outdoor locations. But like any communications technology, it needs to demonstrate a positive return on investment, either financially or in higher productivity.
Looking ahead, 5G will be an important contributor to the workspace for many organizations, especially in a long-term WFH environment. But it is not a solution to every communications challenge, despite all the hype.