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Opinion | How the mobile industry can make the most of 5G

If stakeholders work together to identify commercially viable solutions, 5G can deliver its vast potential

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2023 there will be a staggering 9.1 billion mobile subscriptions. According to telecom-focused technology company Cisco Systems, by 2020, connected mobile devices will produce 30.6 exabytes per month and annual global mobile data traffic will reach 366.8exabytes (one exabyte is one quintillion bytes).

5G is designed to meet this demand. It not only represents a generational leap in connectivity speeds, the new network standard will also introduce lower latency (for improved response) and the ability to connect more devices at once.

So, after much 5G hype and excitement, we are finally seeing progress—proof of concepts, field trials, buildouts and early deployments, and 5G is on the cusp of becoming a reality. The question is, what will it deliver?

With traditional telecom revenues in decline, connectivity fast becoming a commodity and customer-trust diminishing, much of the focus (and hope) is on delivering new revenues for mobile network operators. Despite the many recognized advantages of 5G, mobile network operators are still looking for concrete evidence of return on investment (RoI). The investment isn’t a small one. In fact, it will likely amount to a collective investment of billions of dollars in new network equipment, licences and deployment. So what difference will 5G actually make?

Avoiding the obvious temptation to simply say “Internet of Things" (IoT), here are five 5G-powered use cases—Industry 4.0, mixed reality (MR) applications, which is augmented reality (AR) plus virtual reality (VR), sports and entertainment, fixed wireless access, and autonomous vehicles—that mobile network operators must prepare for.

Like many others, the manufacturing industry is going through a digital revolution. Within the context of Industry 4.0, manufacturers are becoming more efficient through the application of automation and data exchange to their existing factory processes to enable better integrated workflows and smarter manufacturing. Industrial IoT technologies are streamlining and simplifying many manufacturing processes in revolutionary ways. For instance, production robots now have sensors or software that send information to remote teams; some apps can gather real-time feedback and send alerts on defects or damaged goods; and other apps can help track working schedules of factory workers. 5G plays a vital role in this transformative process, especially as the use of AR and VR applications continues to grow in manufacturing to support the realization of manufacturers’ Industry 4.0 goals.

This is followed by MR applications that are likely to be a key driver for 5G. Beyond the consumer market (think Pokémon Go), interesting applications are also likely to be found in industrial and medical contexts. Remote medical procedures, engineering, public safety and field-service applications are all strong use case opportunities for the application of low latency 5G services.

5G will also deliver a significantly enhanced experience for audiences at sporting and entertainment events. A combination of VR and AR with ultra high-fidelity enabled by 5G could transform the way fans interact in these events. Motorsports is ideal for VR in particular: equipped with their mobile device or headset, fans could be served information like lap or technical information about cars as they race on the track in a sport like Formula 1. The opportunity lies in more than just providing connectivity. Mobile network operators can create partnerships with broadcasters and sports organizations to deliver entertainment services directly to customers through their self-service applications.

Fixed wireless access could also be used to bring high bandwidth digital services to under-served rural areas. Mobile operators will then be able to compete with wireline, satellite and cable companies, offering new revenue streams and faster RoI.

Last, arguably the most 5G-centric use case is autonomous driving (level four and above). This is the idea that much of the car, if not all of it, is controlled not by the driver but by technology. 5G is critical to realize this as it will offer the connectivity and speed needed to deliver vast amounts of data to one another as well as other objects simultaneously.

A robust 5G mobile network will enable more decentralization, but for autonomous cars to really thrive, a completely seamless mobile experience is a must so that cars can stay constantly connected. The challenge will be to design IT architecture that can be deployed globally, while still allowing for localized technology to cater for different regions. Coverage, reliability, and scalability must be optimized and seamless mobile networks will require a unified management policy to ensure consistent standards.

5G provides a powerful opportunity for the mobile industry to reap the benefits of cooperation. However, it is vital that collectively, the mobile ecosystem appreciates the limitations associated with frequency allocation, network investment, regulatory restrictions and the availability of funds for investment.

If various parties, including the government and network equipment companies, work together to identify commercially viable and desirable customer solutions, 5G can fulfil the vast potential ascribed to it these past years.

Tim Sherwood is vice-president, mobility and IoT, Tata Communications.

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