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What is 5G? These use cases reveal all

(Image credit: Future)
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It’s important to ask the question ‘What is 5G?’, because despite 5G sounding like a boring network upgrade, the move from 4G to 5G is actually less like an upgrade, and more like a full-scale transformation (resembling the move from PC to tablet or wearable, rather than PC to laptop).

5G’s increased speed and consistency, as well as latency reduction, promise to disrupt both traditional and digital sectors, paving the way for automated vehicles, smart cities, automated factories, and a new wave of business communications.

 Game changing speed 

So what is 5G, exactly? Well on a technical level, it is a network consisting of two parts; the Radio Access Network (RAN) and a core network. The infrastructure converts analogue to digital signals for use by 5G-ready devices. 

The radio access network (RAN) will include macro cell tower masts as well as new small cell nodes (using millimetre waves). These will be attached to buildings lampposts, and signs,  allowing for more processing to happen on the edge leading to lower latency in the network, according to Australian information resource, EMF Explained 2.0.     

 5G's radio access network (RAN) will include macro cell tower masts, such as this EE mast in London’s Cheapside.

 5G's radio access network (RAN) will include macro cell tower masts, such as this EE mast in London’s Cheapside.

(Image credit: EE)

The 5G core network will use network function virtualisation (NFV) to manage routing, packet processing, and security as well as Software Defined Networks (SDN) which will allow for better infrastructure scaling, lower redundancy and less hardware, thereby reducing energy requirements.

NFV and SDN will enable network slicing, allowing network operators to separate users, devices and applications that require a different quality of service, according to Robert Keith, technology expert at A10networks.  

 High 5G standards 

To be considered 5G, a network must offer minimum peak download speed of 20 Gb/s, or 2.5 Gigabytes per second (2.5 GB/s), and peak upload speed of 10 Gb/s (or 1.25 GB/s). The standards also require a minimum latency of just 4 milliseconds under ideal conditions. Actual speed will depend on several factors, including network, proximity to node, and device used.  

 Benefits across sectors 

According to small business portal Bytestart, 5G will allow communication between a million devices per square kilometre (compared with 100,000 for 4G). The enabling of these IoT sensors, combined with speed and low latency, will lead to many benefits across a range of business and prosumer activities. 

IoT connectivity will lead to fully integrated smart cities, which will be essential as urban populations grow. The United Nations (UN) predicts that 68 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050, which will place increasing  pressure on our cities, such as pollution, crime, overcrowding, congestion, and social disorder.

Smart cars and cities

Network operators are already looking to showcase what can be achieved with 5G technology, and one such scheme is the Alba Iulia Smart City, which has been developed in conjunction with Orange, and has seen congestion monitoring, parking sensors, and smart waste management introduced in the Romanian city. 

 Network operators are already looking to showcase what 5G can do with projects like Alba Iulia Smart City 

 Network operators are already looking to showcase what 5G can do with projects like Alba Iulia Smart City 

(Image credit: ALBA IULIA)

Smart factories will also be enabled by 5G, including more robots in production lines, and drones in last mile delivery. It will also enable car to car communication around hazards and incidents, as well as fully automated cars. 

And the CTO of Waymo, which started life as the Google Self-Driving Car Project in 2009, believes that 5G is a crucial “enabler”, when it comes to developing the company’s autonomous car fleets.

“I think it’ll help in terms of communication [and with] latency and bandwidth,” explains Dmitri Dolgov, Waymo’s CTO. “Our cars still have to rely on onboard computation for anything that is safety-critical, but 5G will be an accelerator.”

Waymo, the car previously known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project

Waymo, the car previously known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project

(Image credit: Waymo)

5G and agriculture 

Traditional industries such as agriculture will also use sensors to collate real-time information about fertilisation, livestock, and moisture needs, helping to conserve energy. And we are already seeing the emergence of smart farms, with services such as the MooCall sensor and app now being powered by 5G. MooCall is a sensor that attaches to the tail of cows, and then alerts farmers when a cow is about to give birth (cows move their tails more just before and during labour).  


The health industry will offer remote diagnosis and operations, as well as e-health and responsive wearables, and AI assistants might help people with disabilities. Companies such as the interactive physiotherapy specialist Immersive Rehab are already looking at how 5G can improve their offering, and 5G is being used in various trials such as the Liverpool 5G Testbed

There will be a further shift from hardware to software across all layers of the technology infrastructure, thereby reducing operating costs.  Small businesses can also expect new offerings from telecommunications providers and Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) taking advantage of the slicing facility. 5G should also extend the battery life of devices by up to ten times according to a recent LG Networks blog.

Business communications will be transformed by virtual reality technologies enabling dynamic video experiences for non-local clients or colleagues, as well as holographic projection at meetings, conferences and events. On a more prosaic level, conference calls will be seamless, and mobile documents and video downloads will be almost immediate. 

Drones and energy savings 

There are many interesting user case studies, but the increased use of 5G connected drones or autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for service or production delivery is one with some very interesting permutations. One of these might help with disaster relief situations via the sharing of real time data. They could help with search and rescue missions and deliver medical help, according to OnQ a blog from US telecom operator Qualcomm. And 5G drones can also be used as small cells to prevent gaps in 5G coverage.  

The 5G drone currently being co-created by Google is called the HAWK30

The 5G drone currently being co-created by Google is called the HAWK30

(Image credit: Future)

Another interesting end result of 5G is the huge potential for energy savings. Including all the currently unconnected, energy consuming devices via 5G IoT connections into the grid will allow for better management of energy. 

Where there are outages, 5G and smart grid technology can help with early diagnosis, speeding up repairs and reducing down time. Smart lighting will see street lights dimmed when no one is present, again saving power. 

In fact, a recent McKinsey report, Future proofing infrastructure in a fast changing world, argued that cities deploying a range of smart solutions could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 10–15 percent.   

How should you get 5G ready? 

Prosumers and business owners will need to swap their old phones for a 5G ready version. There are already several 5G smartphones on the market, and EE markets five of them (the Oppo Reno 5G, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, LG V50 ThinQ 5G, the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G and Huawei Mate 20 X 5G). You can also pre-order the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus. Similarly, you will also need a 5G plan, either from one of the big telecoms operators, or an MVNO. We are likely to see more offerings from mobile operators as 5G develops.  

Nicola Brittain is a freelance journalist with expertise in technology, telecoms, media and finance. She worked as news and analysis editor at Computing Magazine, and more recently has freelanced for Diginomica, Investment Week and Portfolio Adviser. She is currently writing a novel.