Last month U.S. telecommunications giant Verizon made history by turning on the world’s first commercial 5G network. It won’t be the last. AT&T plans to launch its own 5G network before the end of the year. T-Mobile has said that 6 of the top 10 U.S. markets are ready for its 5G deployment in 2019.
And that’s to say nothing of efforts in China, which is far ahead of the U.S.; in Europe, which is lagging but poised for widespread 5G deployment in 2019; or in Canada, where industry leader Bell successfully tested its first 5G network this past spring. Even in Africa, where nearly 60% of users are still on the 2G network, service providers are testing 5G. For wireless-service providers and their enterprise clients, the message is clear: adapt to the new paradigm or risk being left behind.
It’s easy to underestimate the magnitude of the difference between 4G and 5G: according to some estimates, the latter could see download speeds of more than 10 gigabits per second. That’s a 1,000% improvement over 4G; imagine downloading an HD film in less than one second. Latency, too, could shrink from the current LTE standard of 50 milliseconds to 1 millisecond, reducing the strain on networks even as capacity increases.
This technology, then, is the foundation for the digital world that consulting firms such as Gartner and Deloitte are frequently urging today’s enterprises to prepare for—one disconnected from cables and wires, yet capable of connecting devices in the remotest locations to the Internet at speeds that make today’s fastest broadband look tortoise slow. It’s the reason Moor Insights & Strategy expects 5G-related hardware spending to reach as much as $326 billion by 2025, as enterprises invest in the growth and advancement of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), next-generation high-definition video and fixed-wireless access, all cutting-edge applications already transforming how the world uses technology.
After all, 5G isn’t just about providing faster data connections and consumer Internet services. It’s the key to unlocking endless possibilities for digital transformation, especially in an IoT- and AI-connected world.
A World of Possibilities
By enabling up to one million 10 Gbps connections per kilometer at low power, the 5G network has the potential to transform wireless infrastructure, and therefore the modern Internet. The technology’s extremely fast bandwidth and ultra-low latency even make mission-critical control possible, opening the door for new applications in sectors that demand absolute reliability, such as remote surgery in health care and improved fleet monitoring in the transportation industry.
And we can expect these new applications sooner than you think. In the past month alone, we’ve seen Samsung showcase a 5G-powered smart-agriculture solution, Indian mobile giant Jio use Ericsson’s 5G network to drive a car in Mumbai from 1,388 km away and Australia’s Voxon Photonics use Verizon’s 5G network to make a holographic call. Other 5G applications announced for 2019 include a wireless mobile-TV service from T-Mobile and a 5G modem from Qualcomm.
Naturally, these new applications will require new connections. Between 2020 and 2021, Cisco expects the number of 5G connections to grow by more than 1,000 percent from 2.3 million in 2020 to more than 25 million, most of them edge devices, in 2021. Businesses must plan well ahead for this coming digital disruption by implementing the major network transformation required to integrate these ultra-fast wireless connections.
Where Enterprises Need to Play a Role
Fiber-like speeds and the ability to handle low-latency applications won’t come easily, however. Enterprises and service providers alike must redesign and rebuild mobile networks to accommodate the high radio density that 5G requires. This huge undertaking is seeing many operators cut their costs by using open-source commodity networking hardware and virtualizing the wireless-networking stack.
The hardware that powers 5G also requires an architecture different from that of 4G. In its current form, 4G is powered by radio access networks from competing service providers using the same technology. On the other hand, 5G networks employ a more central cloud-computing-based architecture called a cloud radio access network, or C-RAN, which can power numerous radios using shared pools of virtual signal generators. Powering new C-RANs requires deploying new edge locations.
In other words, for 5G applications to work properly, network operators and their customers need massive deployments of C-RANs, small-cell technology and mobile edge compute (MEC) in extremely high densities at the edge, close to where their users are consuming services. These deployments will include some remote areas of the world, such as rural U.S. and Australia’s outback, where numerous mines and equipment with wireless sensors require continuous remote monitoring and management.
For its part, Equinix anticipates massive investments in 2019 as existing cellular building infrastructures (e.g., 4G densification) are revamped and new edge infrastructures for hosting 5G networks are built. We also predict a great deal of innovation in disaggregated open-source commodity networking hardware and virtual-wireless-networking stacks for lower cost.
As the next evolution of wireless architecture, 5G brings tall promises of digitally transforming lives, but that transformation comes at a price. With so many parties needed to build out its foundation, we won’t see the benefits if only a few telecommunications companies and their highest-profile collaborators are connected. Hundreds of others, including businesses, governments and people, must be part of the network if its long-awaited high speeds are to make a difference.
Enterprises must adapt to the new paradigm, yes, but they should also be thinking about how they can contribute to the world’s digital transformation.
About the Author
Jim Poole is the Vice President for Global Ecosystem Development at Equinix. In this role he explores new and emerging digital ecosystems with a focus on how Equinix customers can use interconnection to strategic advantage. Before his current role, Jim served as the Vice President for Global Service Provider Marketing, where he was responsible for vertical strategy, messaging and sales activation. He has more than 20 years of experience in the IT industry and has held executive-level positions at Roundbox, Savvis, C&W Americas, NTT, Dynamicsoft and UUNet.