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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 use cases are set to revolutionise how we use technology. And 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. And there re already some amazing 5G use cases out there.

 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.

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.

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.”

5G use cases: public transport Wi-Fi 

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 

US 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).  



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: 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.   

5G use cases: music streaming 

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. 

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.