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5G use cases: we reveal what 5G is actually capable of

5G use cases
(Image credit: Future)
Complete guide to 5G

(Image credit: Future)

5G technology: how it works
4G vs 5G: how they compare
5G Dangers: the fact and fiction
5G Internet: will it replace fibre
5G security: the full picture
5G speed: guide and tools
5G deals: get the best offers
5G phones: discover the best
5G networks: in the US and UK
5G stocks: investment tips

5G’s increased speed and consistency, as well as latency reduction, promise to disrupt both traditional and digital sectors. There are so many opportunities for 5G technology over the coming months, years and decades. 

5G will pave the way for automated vehicles, smart cities, automated factories, and a new wave of business communications. According to the results of a study by Accenture, 79% of businesses worldwide believe that 5G will have a significant impact on their organisation.

And 57% of those believe that it will be revolutionary.

There are already some amazing 5G use cases out there. That's what this feature is all about - the ways in which 5G is already being used across the globe. Because 5G networks are still being rolled out, many of these use cases are actually in the test or proof-of-concept phase, using prototype networks, devices or other technology. But the idea of gathering them here is to show the huge future potential of 5G technology.

In a separate feature, we've detailed 10 5G projects providing a vision for the future - projects that show the true potential of the 5G-enabled Internet of Things (IoT). These include untethered industrial robots that can walk around a factory themselves or across fields, performing routine medical operations remotely or help physicians with menial tasks or a virtual reality (VR) view inside a patient's body. And then there's augmented reality (AR) and how it'll be able to help in situations which would have otherwise been dangerous for humans to enter. 

5G-enabled VR could also help with care in other circumstances, such as for the elderly, while 5G will also be used in connected cars, of course. We've detailed that in this feature, plus there's a lot more on connected cars further down this page. 

 Game changing speed 

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).

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 the 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.


5G use cases: smart cars and cities

Network operators are already looking to showcase what can be achieved with 5G technology, and one such 5G use case 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. 

5G use case: 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.”

5G use case: Waymo

Waymo, the car previously known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project (Image credit: Waymo)

O2 has also now announced a project to trial driverless cars in London using its 5G network. 

The UK's second-biggest phone network has partnered with the Smart Mobility Living Lab - a research organisation comprised of experts from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), DG Cities, Cisco, and Loughborough University - to develop what it claims to be the ‘most advanced driverless testbed in the world’. 

The organisation is based in Greenwich as well as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The aim is to develop a road management system with the focus on a 10 percent reduction in the time that motorists spend in traffic. Other figures include a positive benefit to the economy of £880m a year from improved productivity as well as the reduction of CO2 emissions by 370,000 metric tonnes a year.

“We know that by powering the transport sector we can make a real difference to consumers by reducing traffic congestion, making journeys safer and faster," said Brendan O’Reilly, chief technology officer at O2.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2020, Samsung and BMW showcased the companies' efforts in connected cars, revealing the 5G TCU (Telematics Control Unit). The TCU will be included in the BMW iNext, coming in 2021. The iNext will include technology from Samsung subsidiary Harman.

The companies are talking up the benefits of the technology as not only enabling greater levels of autonomy but also detailed and specific information such as whether there's something in your blind spot.

And 5G to vehicles will also be used to provide entertainment on the move as well as HD maps downloaded in real-time.

In early 2020 Nokia and SoftBank said they'd successfully completed tests showing that 5G can be used to operate cars on a commercial basis. The testing took place at a Honda Research and Development site in Kamikawa-gun, Hokkaido, Japan.

The trials included being able to effectively locate surrounding vehicles at intersections with poor visibility and the transmission and use of 4K video and images taken from the in-vehicle cameras. Nokia says the connected car market will reach over $225bn in value by 2025.


5G use cases: sport

Connectivity is increasingly important at sporting events. No longer are fans content with simply watching the game in front of them, they want to be able to access additional information, watch video highlights and post content on social media. The average Bundesliga match attracts 43,000 spectators who consume an average of 500GB – a figure which has risen by 50 percent over the past 12 months,.

Some sports organisations fear that spectators will stay at home if they are unable to connect. However, existing mobile and Wi-Fi networks lack the capacity for such densely-populated environments, which is why venues and operators are so excited about 5G. Research from Amdocs and Ovum suggests 91 percent of the world’s leading mobile operators plan to hold trials of 5G sporting experiences at stadiums, with the likes of Verizon announcing the 5G availability at selected NFL stadiums.

Verizon has now enabled 5G in a number of NFL stadiums.

Verizon has now enabled 5G in a number of NFL stadiums.  (Image credit: Verizon)

This will not only increase fan satisfaction, but also enable new experiences. The German FA plans to let fans view data insights in real time – such as how fast a player is sprinting – using Augmented Reality. 

But it's sports broadcasting which is arguably the most developed use case for 5G to date, with ready-made innovations driving efficiencies and unlocking a raft of creativity options. 5G-enabled cameras eliminate the need to use cables, making it easier to cover sports that take place over a wide area. Fox Sports has trialled 5G at golf’s US Open (with Intel, AT&T, and Ericsson) allowing its team to cover more of the course, while 5G was used to capture some events at the 2018 Winter Olympics. In the UK, BT Sport is able to join football fans in the pub before the game, travel on the team bus, capture the game, and do post-match interviews using the same camera.

Intel worked with Fox Sport at the US Open.

Intel worked with Fox Sport at the US Open. (Image credit: Intel)

Meanwhile, 5G-enabled remote production enables video feeds to be sent back to a central hub, rather than an outside broadcast truck. This massively reduces costs and allows production teams to work across multiple events in a single day. Already, the likes of Verizon and Sony have joined forces to demonstrate how 5G can enhance live sports broadcasts.

Although capacity isn’t a concern for the time being, network slicing will allow operators to guarantee broadcasters a certain level of performance.


5G use cases: drones

Verizon wants to be the first telco to use 5G to enable a million connected drone flights to take place. That's some ambition, but the idea has some backing since Verizon bought Skyward in 2016 - an organisation specializing in drone operations for businesses and enterprises. 

Skyward provides drone operators with detailed mapping while operating industrial drones plus there are also tools for overseeing multiple drones in action and, basically, work out what needs to go where. 

Verizon's plan is to enable as many drones as possible to be connected and to transmit video footage in real-time but also to relay back other intelligence such as levels of stock in a warehouse situation

“We've already started testing connected drones on 5G on the Verizon Network,” said Mariah Scott, president of Skyward. “We knew early on that connectivity would be critical for drones. And now 5G Ultra Wideband will usher in a new era in aviation, where we connect and integrate drones into the national airspace.” 

Elsewhere, Irish startup Manna has partnered with Cubic Telecom to fly delivery 5G-connected delivery drones in Ireland and England by the end of 2020. It is currently testing the tech at a base in Pontypool, Wales. 

The intention is for the drones to charge $1 per delivery. Each drone will have three batteries on board, meaning that they can make five deliveries per hour. Even so, that doesn't seem that profitable to us, but Manna believes that by keeping the drones flying as much as possible it can make it work. 


5G use cases: entertainment 

Verizon showcased its 5G tech in real-time rendering of effects from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The network partnered with Walt Disney Studios’ StudioLAB for a demo at the premiere afterparty in in Hollywood where guests were able to interact with Sith troopers in real-time.

Two actors played the troopers working in a remote location 15 miles away. Those who took part in the demo could approach a screen and interact with the two Sith troopers. The troopers were able to react in real-time. 

(Image credit: Verizon)

“Both the StudioLAB and Verizon believe 5G will fundamentally change everything about how entertainment media is created, distributed and consumed,” said Nicki Palmer, chief product development officer at Verizon. 

“The speed and low latency of 5G can unlock incredible creative capabilities,” added Ben Havey at Disney Studios StudioLAB. “We want to give storytellers early access to this new technology so they can continue to bring unparalleled experiences to audiences around the world.”

In November EE streamed a 360-degree augmented reality (AR) Bastille concert from Birmingham New Street station to Edinburgh and Liverpool. 

As well as being covered by various media outlets, the stunt wasn't just for fun - the event will be featured in a new EE brand campaign by Saatchi & Saatchi 

Members of the public in Edinburgh and Liverpool could watch the gig on devices provided by EE reps including the Samsung Galaxy Fold 5G and some AR glasses. Of course, AR visuals surrounded the band which could be seen on the glasses.

EE has used other music stars to promote 5G - it held a gig with Stormzy on the River Thames to promote the launch of its 5G network. The network also sponsors the Glastonbury Festival each year. 


5G use cases: public transport 

Virgin Trains has been testing out 5G-powered Wi-Fi on its trains. The company believes it is the first railway company to trial the new tech. The trial happened on services between London Euston and Birmingham New Street, and between London Euston and Manchester Piccadilly. 

However, Virgin Trains hasn't yet said if and when it plans to offer 5G-powered Wi-Fi on board its trains. 

The Vodafone 5G network was used to provide the 5G service - the red network has installed 5G in key transport locations including Birmingham New Street station. 

Virgin says the speeds seen were up to ten times faster than current on-board Wi-Fi. 


5G use cases: manufacturing 

5G networks will come close to eliminating the problem of latency. Latency is not to be confused with speed or bandwidth. While the latter is about how much data you can receive in one second, latency describes the delay on the line when sending information from one place to another. Latency is measured in milliseconds (ms), and just to give you some context, most modern 4G networks have a latency of around 50 ms. But with 5G networks using URLLC (Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications) latency can theoretically reduce that to a single millisecond, essentially rendering the issue of latency meaningless. The advantages to manufacturers are many; think high-precision assembly lines where all machines and robots are perfectly in sync in real-time, the mass-adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT), and even humans controlling machines via touch. However, the first generation of 5G networks tend to offer around 10ms latency, so, for now, latency is still an issue. Expect second-gen 5G networks to be mostly about reducing latency.

(Image credit: SMS group GmbH)

5G in a manufacturing context is not about making use of publicly available 5G connections as used by consumers. No, 5G for industry is about constructing custom-made, private 5G networks that essentially bring alive the idea of an Intelligent or ‘smart’ factory. Also known as Industry 4.0, this is about abandoning the old ways to embrace connected systems to encourage more streamlined automation in a closed environment. With the Internet of Things (IoT) in full deployment and connected sensors on every machine, the aim is to predict problems, see problems emerge in real-time, and reduce production downtime. The secret sauce will be AI-capable analytics software to crunch real-time data on every machine and piece of equipment.

5G is about capacity and density as much as it is about speed. The specification for 5G networks allows up to one million devices per square kilometre, which is a massive attraction for industry as it theoretically breathes life into machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, and the Industrial IoT (IIoT) as a whole. In a manufacturing context, those devices are everything from sensors, machines and robots to wearables, autonomous vehicles and VR headsets. However, 5G networks don't yet reach this maximum specification, so it could take a few years before the capacity aspect of 5G networks becomes attractive to manufacturers.

In the US, mobile network Verizon has partnered with specialist glass maker Corning to investigate the impact of 5G on manufacturing. 

The maker of Corning Gorilla Glass (used on vast numbers of smartphones) are looking at how 5G can improve control across a factory environment on a large scale by tracking supplies across the whole complex, autonomous vehicles - so they can be called in from other parts of the facility - as well as moving product around. 

"As artificial intelligence starts using this data and improving our process, making our processes more efficient, that's when we're going to start seeing the value,"  says Claudio Mazzalli, Corning's vice president of technology. 

Could it actually save Corning money? "We are not speculating right now, but I can tell you that this question is a very important question for us. We don't want to start just adding devices everywhere if we don't see the value."


5G use cases: 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).  

And, of course, connected vehicles can get involved here. We've already seen autonomous tractors getting ready for the market - primarily for larger farms in the US and elsewhere. But tractors like the Case IH Autonomous Concept Vehicle won't be the last - and they won't just be for large farms either. Autonomy will pervade our lives. 

Finland’s Elisa network has a new 5G demo space in  Helsinki, where it is demonstrating a remote-controlled tractor. The system has been developed with tractor company, Valtra and it works using 5G of course. You can control it from vast distances away, using a 360-degree camera mounted on the top which sends 4K images back to the driver. 

(Image credit: Elisa)

Another area of agriculture being transformed by 5G is precision farming, also known as ‘smart farming’, which is all about applying precise treatments to crops, so instead of treating an entire field the same, farmers can give each row exactly what it needs. It’s all about reducing inputs, from water and food to fertiliser and herbicides. “5G is critical to this, as it supports machine to machine (M2M) services,” says Simon Jordan, Senior Sensor Physicist at Cambridge Consultants. 5G speeds-up everything, allowing machines to be controlled centrally and data to be sent back in real time; without 5G, the system relies only on data being uploaded at the end of the day.

(Image credit: Cambridge Consultants)

For precision agriculture to really take off requires 5G-connected farm machinery. A massive increase in compute power and data collection are the driving forces behind the rise in artificial intelligence (AI), but there’s a missing link; how to get that data to where it’s needed for analysis. “5G on farm machinery and sensors will increase massively the amount of data available, meaning AI can now get to work properly,” says Paul Beastall, Director of Technology Strategy at Cambridge Consultants. “Farms are typically run from a mixture of experience and specialised knowledge, and centralised AI is already spotting patterns that allow yields to be improved, for instance by giving early warnings of disease in greenhouses.”


5G use cases: healthcare

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.

5G has even made its way into the operating theatre, when Telefónica, with the help of a hospital in Malaga, already presented the first assistance system for surgery that runs entirely on 5G technology. The howcase took place at the IV Advanced Digestive Endoscopy Conference, where Telefónica broadcast medical training sessions live, and in 4K quality. It achieved this with “almost no latency,” according to Telefónica.

Elsewhere, O2 has developed a deal with Samsung and the NHS to test out “smart ambulances” equipped with 5G technologyO2 will test the technology on six ambulances which will allow for new services such as real-time video technology and high-quality scanners (read the full story here).

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. 


5G use cases: construction

The construction industry has always looked at new technologies as a way to improve safety and working practices, and 5G is no different. 

KT and Hyundai Engineering & Construction have announced that they will work together to build 5G networks at construction sites, with a aim to develop construction and automation technology.Using 5G infrastructure, we could see autonomous construction robots, and 5G will also be used to improve other technologies with better productivity and monitoring at construction sites.

KT will help Hyundai to build these 5G networks at its construction sites. The trials of the 5G solutions will commence later this year. If the trial all goes to plan, then the two companies aim to apply their technologies to many more construction sites next year. 

KT has said that its 5G technologies will provide "ultra-fast data transmission speeds and ultra-low latency with top notch security". And the companies have both said that the development of autonomous robots will give Hyundai the opportunity to carry out work on sites with limited to no human access (read the full story here).


5G use cases: energy

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.   


5G use cases: broadcasting

TMU9evo air cooled UHF transmitter.

(Image credit: Rohde & Schwarz)

At a tech demo in Barcelona, Rohde & Schwarz teamed up with telecoms provider Cellnex and Spanish broadcaster RTVE, to transmit a 5G live broadcast. The idea is that 5G network operators will be able to deliver premium streams to customers as they move around. 

“5G multicast has some way to go before it becomes commercially available, but what the current and upcoming trials are proving is that this new technology could radically change the way people access high-quality digital media on the move – watch this space!” said Manfred Reitmeier, from Rohde & Schwarz.

There's an obvious benefit for broadcasters, too, in that they will be able to create new revenue streams around existing content. It could mean that it's more worthwhile for 5G network providers to deploy small cells along major transport routes, not just in big cities.


5G use cases: communication

(Image credit: Vodafone)

Although the first wave of video calls over 5G will be on phones (which is why most 5G phones have better front cameras), in the long term expect full HD, 4K and even 8K video streams to be exchanged between 5G-enabled augmented reality (AR) devices and virtual reality (VR) headsets. With 5G’s ability to stream high capacity data packets in real-time, video-calling applications are about to get super-charged and go 360°.

(Image credit: Vodafone)

And once video calling over 5G has improved, expect another giant leap to be made with the advent of live 3D holographic phone calls. Last year UK network operator Vodafone conducted the UK’s first live holographic call using 5G technology, with England and Manchester City Women’s footballer Steph Houghton using 5G tech to make a holographic call from Manchester. She appeared as a live 3D hologram on stage in front of an audience at Vodafone’s UK HQ in Newbury. European network operator Cosmote in Greece has also used the same tech to ‘holoport’ musicians in different physical locations on to a virtual stage where they played a piece of music together. 3D holographic calls require about four times as much data as a streamed 4K video – itself pretty data-intensive – though 5G’s low latency is just as important. In the long term the tech has potential applications for medical imaging, video conferencing and gaming.


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.  

The Complete Guide to 5G - free 23-page PDF download.

(Image credit: Future)

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.