blog

5G and IoT – alchemy or hubris?

5G is here. Telecoms companies including Three, Vodafone, EE and 02 have already stated 5G’s arrival in major cities across the UK.

But what exactly does 5G mean for businesses? And how will it impact UK businesses?

5G (5th generation mobile technology) is expected to revolutionise wireless communication through faster upload speeds, wider mobile coverage and more stable connections. Added to that is talk about 5G’s effect on the proliferation and advancement of fast, low-power Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

There are currently an estimated 6.4 billion IoT devices in the world today, but that is expected to reach 20 billion by 2020 — which is why the rise of IoT is being hailed as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Examples of evolving IoT smart products include August Smart Lock, Amazon Alexa and Echo, Google Nest, smart stores and even smart cities.

Beyond that are wearable biometric devices, self-driving cars, virtual reality or automated robotics — all becoming more common because of 5G. Many of these are in their infancy, but their advancement could skyrocket because 5G boosts communication speed and supports more connections at once (up to one million per square km) with very low power.

The current limitations for devices on 4G is high latency, which is the amount of time it takes data to be sent and then returned to the same device. 5G is expected to greatly increase speed through low latency, low power consumption and easily upgradeable devices with little or no need for cumbersome battery replacement.

This is due to new low-power sensors such as LTE-M and NB-IoT which allow companies to develop more IoT tech where small, intermittent blocks of data are useful. Ultimately, 5G will enable faster and better communication between IoT devices.

So how will low-power IoT impact business?

The ability to automate processes, monitor real-time results and instantaneously communicate with customers means the effects of 5G and IoT on business and industry could be immense. However, its roll-out is slow and it isn’t entirely clear what the effects will be until it is more readily available.

Industries most affected by this coming revolution are telecoms, insurance, construction, energy, healthcare, agriculture, media/entertainment and transportation, with purported benefits ranging from enhanced company productivity; targeted ads using time, location, customer and other data; faster product delivery and sensor technology which will allow new ways to monitor conditions, product health, consumer behaviour and so on.

But IoT isn’t just about devices; it’s about the creation of new insights. This is perhaps the biggest benefit for business because it adds value, improves operations and can lead to better customer service.

For example, South East Water UK built an end-to-end IoT ecosystem using an app which delivers data about customer requirements in near-real time to over 80 engineering teams. DHL has also implemented IoT for freight transportation which allows them to monitor location, container openings, vibrations or damage to the cargo. And on the factory level, wearable IoT is being used in manufacturing businesses so that waste management, safety, quality control and worker feedback can be monitored. Insights like these can lead to more efficient business operations, new sources of revenue and improved ways to assess customer needs.

All that said, 5G is not yet fully-functional. The transition from 4G is expected to take years because of the major changes that are needed to infrastructure such as building new clusters of antennae closer to the users.

Also, while there is a high degree of excitement around the advancement of IoT devices, questions are being raised about surveillance, data privacy and security as more devices become connected to the internet. Not only will there be closer monitoring of everyday life through IoT, but the change in how these devices communicate can open these channels up to hackers and security breaches.

How Can Businesses Prepare?

Whatever the pace and timeline of 5G and IoT may be, below are three things that organisations can do to embrace the coming changes:

  • Identify opportunities: outline the potential business benefits and invest in talent and infrastructure. Understand and plan for how 5G can affect operations and product delivery.
  • Recognise it will disrupt traditional business processes: 5G will require new technologies and new forms of data management. Companies should identify their individual business requirements, including what types of sensors and connectivity they might need.
  • Prepare for security/privacy issues: experts say the weak link in 5G’s security is likely to be the communication between devices connected to the internet. The more devices that are connected, the higher the security risk, so companies are advised to bolster security measures around their devices and IT systems.

***

To sum up, IoT and 5G could greatly impact business and industry. The rise in connected devices which create faster, streamlined processes and real-time communication could alter business operations and product delivery in profound ways.

But amidst all of the hype, expectations should be tempered around what these technologies will enable, and when. There is more to learn about the benefits and the risks, especially when it comes to privacy and security. Companies who plan early and integrate IoT and 5G into their transformation programmes may well gain a competitive edge against those who have yet to prepare.

More Perspectives