5G: What IT leaders need to know

5G networks promise fast speeds and low latency: That’s a big deal in an era when data is gold. Let’s explore what 5G means for AI, IoT, and other applications, as well as your notions about networking and bandwidth
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5G what leaders need to know

The basics of 5G start simply: 5G stands for the telecom providers’ fifth-generation technology. You already knew that, or perhaps don’t need to know that – the semantics aren’t what will impact your business. You also already know 5G’s overarching promise: It will be faster than previous generations.

5G rollouts are still in their very early stages and will be “deliciously messy.”

It’s the business impacts that may not yet be as clear-cut. 5G will in all likelihood have effects – potentially significant effects – on your organization, be they in the form of new opportunities, shifting consumer expectations, or otherwise. Experts generally concur this is more a matter of when than if. 5G might take time to begin living up to its hype: 5G rollouts are still in their very early stages and will be “deliciously messy,” as one analyst put it. But there’s substance behind the buzz.

“5G is poised to create a revolutionary, versus an evolutionary, wave of change and innovation across our world,” says John Walsh, Accenture’s group chief executive for communications, media & technology. “With the anticipated capability to connect 10 times more devices per square kilometer, ultra-reliable low latency of less than 1 ms, and speeds up to 100 times faster than today’s mobile technology, it will bring a massive new wave of product and service innovations that benefit both business and society.”

[ How are media companies using edge computing and 5G? Watch the MWC panel discussion: Tips and tricks for 5G and the network edge. ]

What 5G promises: High speed, low latency

5G gives CIOs another tool they can leverage for digital transformation.

Walsh sums up the crux of what will capture the attention of just about any CIO: While the numbers might vary by source and context – what’s possible today versus what’s expected in the future, for example – 5G promises (very) fast speeds and (very) low latency. This a big deal in an era when data is gold for CIOs and their organizations. With 5G, CIOs [will] have another tool in their toolbox they can leverage to aid with their digital transformation, says Harald Remmert, director of engineering at Digi International.

How you wield that tool will, as always, depend on your business and its goals.

“5G is all about data and speed,” says Meg Ramsey, vice president of cloud services product management at Sungard AS. “Using those two factors as guideposts, what can you do to improve your current business?”

Use cases for 5G: IoT and AI figure prominently

This is, in a sense, the fun part: Imagining the possibilities, or in IT terms, identifying and evaluating the use cases. Now’s the time to do so, experts advise. Because of the powerful pairing of high speed and low latency, the options are myriad.

“Any use case that requires high-capacity data transfer at low latencies is a perfect fit for 5G,” Heena Purohit, senior product manager at IBM Watson IoT.

As a result, IoT is one of the big areas where 5G is expected to have considerable impacts in terms of bringing new devices online and connecting them. Here’s how Remmert describes one scenario where will 5G will improve over 4G LTE: “A massive number of IoT devices and sensors securely connected to the enterprise network, enabling new use cases and a simpler, lower-cost architecture compared to proprietary RF networks.” (Remmert adds that LTE isn’t going anywhere anytime soon; rather, it will continue to evolve and be used along with 5G.)

[ For more IoT perspective, read also: Is IoT growing up? 5 key issues and Why IoT is not an island. ]

5G will also create new capabilities for how organizations analyze and act on copious amounts of data, in IoT settings and other contexts.

Where will 5G change the rules? Examples include cars, medical devices, autonomous robots, and videoconferencing.

“5G is the holy grail for applying AI and advanced analytics to your IoT data in real-time,” Purohit says. “On average, 5G can reduce latencies of about 80-100 ms to less than 10 ms. This enables you to run more AI-driven calculations in shorter time spans than ever before. So a car that constantly needs to be aware of its entire environment and react instantly and will immensely benefit from 5G. Same applies for applications such as medical devices and fully autonomous robots, among many others.”

5G will also likely help improve upon existing technologies such as videoconferencing, as well as better fulfill the enterprise potential of emerging areas like AR and VR. Again, it’s a matter of imagining the possibilities. Here’s Walsh from Accenture doing just that:

“At the business level, a plant manager in Seattle can use a 5G-powered extended reality headset to immerse themselves in a virtual replica of a factory in Vietnam. Volumetric executives can appear in meetings anywhere in the world with next-generation conferences,” Walsh says. “Doctors can leverage the ultra-reliable low latency of 5G to perform specialized surgeries remotely, using immersive 3D holograms sent into their homes and offices. 5G will make it possible for experts and top professionals to work virtually onsite where the skills are lacking physically.”

5G’s networking implications

5G will also have core networking implications. For example, Remmert says, it could help IT leaders connect enterprise locations at a lower cost compared to wired connections, or [enable] redundancy and network uptime that previously was not possible or not economical.

Predictions that wired connections will disappear altogether are probably exaggerated, but suffice it to say that 5G will give organizations another option in terms of networking and bandwidth.

“5G will change the way that CIOs think about bandwidth and utilization.”

“5G technology will change the way that CIOs think about bandwidth and utilization,” says Tommy Mullins, SVP of sales for specialty practices at Onepath. “With ubiquitous access to bandwidth that is 10x-to-100x faster than current offerings, new applications and capabilities will be enabled, and they’ll be deliverable across a wide spectrum of geography and media.”

If this is the fun part, keep in mind that there will be work involved, too. For an individual consumer, adopting 5G might simply mean buying a new phone. As usual, it’s a little more complicated for enterprises.

“Since 5G will connect hundreds of millions more devices and sensors in total, CIOs should be preparing by reviewing their present network infrastructures and determining what investments they’ll need to make in hardware, software, and services, and how to manage exponentially greater devices and network traffic,” Walsh says.

5G and security

5G will inevitably alter and expand the security threat landscape, Walsh also notes. That’s another story for another day, but for now, it’s important to not underestimate the security implications.

“With this huge new wave of massive machine type of communication and connectivity, CIOs will need to prepare for a new wave of bad actors,” Walsh says. “The sheer speed and scale of 5G could potentially increase the number of security threats we’re wrestling with today.”

The opportunities should outweigh the downsides for forward-thinking IT and business leaders. Those opportunities ultimately boil down to data and the technologies that both produce and depend upon it – in other words, something that’s already very much top of mind for most CIOs.

“5G is an enabler for big data, connected devices, artificial intelligence, and much more,” Ramsey says. “It isn’t a panacea, but a piece of the puzzle that will enable businesses to redefine how they service their customers and how they use data to drive their business forward.”

[ Learn the do’s and don’ts of cloud migration: Get the free eBook, Hybrid Cloud for Dummies. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.