The future of 5G: What to expect from this transformational technology


Since its rollout in 2019, 5G wireless networks have been growing in both availability and use cases. Apple was one of the first manufacturers to test the appetite for 5G in 2020 by offering its newest iPhone with 5G compatibility. From there, the floodgates opened, and today as much as 62% of smartphones are built with 5G connectivity (link resides outside ibm.com.) The number of networks also continues to grow, with many popular Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon, Google and AT&T, offering 5G connectivity in both homes and businesses. 

But what does the future hold in store? 5G has been hailed as a disruptive technology, comparable to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and the Internet of Things (IoT) in terms of the kinds of change it will bring about. How much of that is true and how much is just hype? To answer that question, we first must look at how 5G works and what makes it different than other technologies.

What is 5G?

5G (fifth-generation mobile technology) is a new standard for cellular networks developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3FPP) in 2018 to replace the previous standards of 3G, 4G and 4G LTE. Its goal was to define a new set of standards for devices and applications compatible with 5G networks. Like its predecessors, 5G uses radio waves to transmit data. However, because of improvements in latency, throughput and bandwidth, 5G networks can reach much faster download and upload speeds, giving it a much wider range of applications.  

How is 5G different from previous generations of wireless networks?

Because of technological improvements, 5G has been praised for its transformative potential across a number of industries. This is largely due to its ability to move large volumes of data swiftly and securely between connected devices at speeds never achieved before. Since the invention of mobile broadband and its gradual expansion into every corner of work and home life, the amount of data generated by the networks and mobile devices running on it has increased exponentially. Today, some technologies (e.g., AI and ML) require too much data to run at speeds offered by previous generations of wireless networks. 5G, on the other hand, with its lightning-fast speeds and high-band frequencies (24GHz–40GHz), is well suited for applications that demand swift, safe access to large amounts of data.

Here are some of the most important differences between 5G and its predecessors:

  • Smaller physical footprint: 5G transmitters are smaller than those on predecessors’ networks, and its “cells”—the geographical areas wireless technology depend on for connectivity—are smaller and require less power.
  • Improved error rates: 5G’s adaptive Modulation and Coding Scheme (MCS), a schematic for transmitting data, is more powerful than the schemes used in 3G and 4G networks. This makes its Block Error Rate (BER)—the frequency of errors on its networks—much lower.
  • Better bandwidth: By using more radio frequencies than previous wireless communications networks, including low-band (less than 1 GHz), mid-band (1 GHz–6 GHz) and high-band (24 GHz–40 GHz), 5G can support more devices at the same time.
  • Lower latency: 5G’s low latency—a measurement of the time it takes data to travel from one location to another—is better than on previous networks, making routine activities like downloading a file or working in the cloud much faster. 

How does 5G work?

Like all other wireless networks, 5G relies on “cells” to function. Within each cell, a wireless device, such as a phone, laptop or tablet, is connected to the internet using radio waves that bounce between a 5G antennae and base station. The same technology that has powered every previous generation of wireless networks also powers 5G, but with some improvements. Notably, 5G networks transmit data as fast as 10 or even 20 gigabits per second (Gbps)—more than 100 times faster than 4G.

As the number of devices built for 5G technology increases, so does demand for the networks themselves. In North America, all the popular telecommunications companies offer 5G now, covering more than 200 million homes and businesses (link resides outside ibm.com), with that number projected to double in the next four years.

Here are three critical areas where 5G technology is superior to its predecessors.

New RAT standard

The 5G NR (New Radio) standard for cellular networks defines the next generation of radio access technology (RAT) specification for all 5G mobile networks. Today, 45% of networks worldwide are 5G compatible, with that number forecasted to rise to 85% by the end of the decade according to a recent report by Ericsson (link resides outside ibm.com).

Network slicing capabilities

On 5G networks, telecom operators can offer multiple independent virtual networks (in addition to public ones) on the same 5G infrastructure, allowing users to do more things remotely with greater security than ever before.

Private networks

In addition to network slicing, 5G allows users to create private networks with enhanced personalization and security. Enterprises seeking more control and mobility for employees are increasingly turning to private 5G network architectures rather than public networks.

5G future: Innovations in the coming years

Interest in 5G networks and the devices and applications that run on them is understandably high among both consumers and business leaders. According to this recent IDC white paper (link resides outside ibm.com), in the US alone, almost 120 million 5G devices were expected to ship by the end of 2023—a 9.3 % increase over the previous year. By 2027, the final year covered in the report, 155 million units are expected to ship, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.4%.

Although the same numbers aren’t available worldwide, a Statista report (link resides outside of ibm.com) pegs global penetration of 5G compatible smartphones at 59% in 2023, with that number expected to reach more than 82% by 2027.

But going beyond the numbers, what does this surge in interest really mean? Sometimes, with new technologies, it can be hard to separate what’s real from all the excitement. Here’s a closer look at some of the areas 5G is expected to impact and the likely changes it will bring.

Healthcare

In the healthcare industry, 5G is already enabling greater efficiencies, deeper insights from data, and improvements in patient outcomes. Its low latency, high speed and increased bandwidth will help doctors discover new treatments, perform critical procedures remotely using robotics, and access patient information in the field no matter where they are.

More specifically, 5G will continue to do the following:

  • Add to the number of IoT devices used to remotely monitor patient health.
  • Supply dependable connectivity with real-time results, enabling staff to make faster, more informed decisions about patient care.
  • Transmit HD photos and videos—such as X-rays and mammograms—swiftly and securely so their results can be read remotely.

Supply chains

As 5G connectivity spreads, supply chains everywhere will benefit from its lightning-fast speeds and increased reliability. Since the networks that global trade depends on are increasingly digitized, they’re more reliant than ever on high-speed data transmission capabilities and 5G speeds to function. The more digitization and automation in a supply chain, the more 5G can be leveraged to increase efficiencies, reduce costs and increase security.  

Today, 5G service is already being used in airports, ports, train stations and other logistics hubs critical to supply chain infrastructure, but its potential has barely been tapped. Soon, expect 5G connectivity to play a bigger role in enhancing both the employee and customer experience. Programs already being piloted include IoT devices, such as shelf sensors that know when an item is out of stock and re-order it immediately, cashier-less checkouts, and HD cameras and drones to replace security guards.

Fixed wireless networks

The concept of ‘fixed’ wireless connections—an internet connection that delivers a seamless wireless experience in a home or business via radio waves rather than through cable or fiber—can help deliver the internet cheaply to more people and places. In a fixed 5G ecosystem, an antenna is attached to a house or place of business that connects to the nearest 5G transmitter. 5G fixed wireless networks can deliver the same speeds, connectivity and reliability as fiber or cable connections at a fraction of the cost.  

According to a recent World Bank blog (link resides outside of IBM), providing internet connectivity—and specifically wireless access—helps lift millions out of poverty every year. A 5G technology that can deliver the same benefits at a much lower cost to millions of people could be a game-changer, bringing the benefits of internet connectivity to communities that have been living without it for years.

Smart cities

Perhaps no other environment is poised to change as much due to 5G connectivity as crowded urban centers where foot and car traffic have long led to congestion, air and noise pollution. 5G is already helping cities improve traffic flow and air quality with sensors connected via the IoT, but the future will likely bring much more innovation to this space.

One of the biggest areas where smart cities can leverage 5G more is in its AI capabilities. Currently, programs are being tested that would see 5G-enabled AI assist in everything from smarter energy management to the routing of 911 calls. In Vienna, WienBot, an AI chatbot (link resides outside ibm.com), helps users solve problems as simple as finding the nearest drinking fountain or a place to eat dinner to as complex tasks as renewing their passport and obtaining travel visas.

Edge computing and AI

Finally, edge computing—a computing framework that relies heavily on 5G to perform computations closer to data sources—is poised to help enterprises achieve unprecedented control over their data and extract insights even faster than they already are. One area where edge computing is particularly well-positioned for growth is cloud computing, where AI requires large amounts of power to handle the data it’s tasked with analyzing. Here, 5G connectivity and reliability is key to realizing value for the enterprise. For example, sending data from one point to another in a chat or personal finance application requires additional power and resources that aren’t necessary if the data is being analyzed at its source.

Soon, it’s possible that edge computing will make real-time AI analysis of large volumes of data a reality for everything from fitness and health apps to remotely operated vehicles like satellites and drones. Given its potential, utilizing 5G-enabled edge computing is quickly becoming the standard for enterprise data processing. According to this Gartner white paper (link resides outside ibm.com), by 2025, 75% of enterprise data will be processed at the edge (compared to only 10% today).

5G solutions with IBM Cloud Satellite

Before you can take advantage of all the potential possibilities the future of 5G holds, you need a platform that’s built for it. IBM Cloud Satellite lets you deploy and run apps consistently across on-premises, edge computing and public cloud environments on a 5G network. And it’s all enabled by secure and auditable communications within the IBM Cloud.

Explore IBM Cloud Satellite

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