By James Rundle
In the corporate world, the point of 5G wireless service goes far beyond faster internet access.
True, 5G, short for fifth-generation wireless, is up to 100 times faster than current 4G connectivity. But even though 5G is still in its infancy, the technology has the potential to reshape how companies in a range of fields manage their technology -- everything from factory floors to farming.
5G uses higher frequencies and a much broader chunk of the radio spectrum than previous generations -- which means that it can send more data more quickly, and to more devices, than has been possible in the past. That creates the potential to open up new business models, in which more wirelessly connected data-gathering sensors and intelligence are deployed in the field.
One early use of the technology is enabling the enhanced use of robotics and automated devices on factory floors. Machines can be operated remotely with much more ease because there isn't as much lag in their performance, and they can be linked together and managed much more easily.
In Europe, auto manufacturers including Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Volkswagen AG plan to apply for licenses to operate private 5G networks within their facilities.
"The BMW Group sees great potential for production in the new 5G standard," a spokesman for BMW says.
Volkswagen, which didn't respond to a request for comment, has previously said that it operates around 5,000 robots at its Wolfsburg plant in Germany and will require 5G's capabilities to control these and other internet-connected machinery, such as autonomous vehicles.
Industrial companies are also interested in 5G because the technology allows a degree of operating flexibility that isn't possible with current infrastructure, says Scott Gravelle, chief executive and chief technology officer at Attabotics Inc., based in Calgary, Alberta, which provides robotic fulfillment centers for retailers and other businesses.
For example, a box maker in a traditional factory is usually networked by physical wiring to other components, such as programmable logic controllers that coordinate machine activities. With the reduction in lag, or latency, and the stability afforded by a private 5G network, those devices, and more of them, can become wirelessly internet-connected and easy to move, without the need to hard-wire and re-engineer connections, Mr. Gravelle says.
"The amount of flexibility that gets delivered in industrial 5G networks is almost limitless compared to legacy architecture," he says. Wireless 5G connections enable equipment to be swapped out with comparative ease, he says.
Telecommunications-equipment provider Ericsson AB's facility in Lewisville, Texas, which began operations in March, is among the earliest examples of a 5G-connected factory. It uses 5G to enable large-scale automation in warehousing and production-line operations, and the network allows the use of video and radio sensors in all parts of the manufacturing process for tasks such as fault detection. Bringing all this technology to bear wouldn't have been possible over a broadband Wi-Fi network or other network standards, owing to the instability and limitations of those technologies, says Erik Ekudden, Ericsson's chief technology officer.
"Previous generations of technology were not capable enough....You wouldn't have completely re-engineered or built a factory only on 3G, or for that matter, a 4G network," he says. A 5G base station was the first product to roll off the factory's line.
Entertainment and sports
Intel Corp. has worked on a range of 5G projects, according to Caroline Chan, vice president of Intel's Data Center Group and general manager of the group's Network Business Incubator Division. These include an Orlando, Fla.-based theme park, which she didn't name, where visitor experiences are rooted in augmented and virtual reality, underpinned by a 5G network that can provide low-latency connections and handle the data transmission requirements of the attractions.
Manish Vyas, president of the communications, media and entertainment unit within Indian conglomerate Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd.'s Tech Mahindra business, and chief executive of its network-services division, says that the range of early uses for 5G it has been involved with include drone-enabled pipeline inspection, fleet management in mines and telemedicine, among others.
Early deployments in the consumer space have, so far, largely centered on specialized applications, such as fan experiences at sporting events and early experiments with augmented and virtual reality. The ability to quickly configure and subdivide 5G networks according to needs, rather than installing entirely new connections as with 4G, is proving to be a boon to companies such as event organizers.
The network's edge
Many of these 5G applications are based on the idea of edge computing, in which a combination of sensors and analytical software can be deployed even in remote locations, such as farms or other rural areas.
Edge computing allows information to be processed at the point it's collected rather than having to travel to central servers -- but it will require 5G to facilitate its vast data and connectivity requirements. Convoys of autonomous vehicles, for example, require fast and stable connections to receive necessary data, such as traffic updates, information on road conditions and vehicle status.
Artificial intelligence and the burgeoning array of connected devices known as the Internet of Things, too, will substantially benefit from 5G's speed and capacity. Sensors used widely in smart cities to measure a wide array of conditions will require 5G's connectivity to function on the scale required, for instance, although these technologies are still early-stage, and will take time to develop.
Mr. Rundle is a reporter for WSJ Pro Enterprise Technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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