The rollout of 5G is often discussed as merely a method for consumers to more quickly download video and other content directly to their mobile devices or gaming systems. And while the
technology will certainly do that, 5G will ultimately enable so much more.
It's time to think beyond the smartphone and to other devices or machines that will work mostly in the background, invisible to some but critical to entire industries and cities. And once 5G's capacity,
resilience and lower latency enable these devices to work seamlessly, we'll wonder how we ever lived or worked without it.
Consider the much-hyped next stage of the Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, which relies upon the
proliferation of the "Industrial Internet of Things" (IIoT). Some researchers suggest that global
spending on IoT will approach nearly $400B in just a few years – with the manufacturing sector predicted to comprise a large chunk of that spend at nearly 18%. That's a lot of devices, from sensors on the production line to stock management and even transportation conditions, all requiring a level of connection that needs a highly resilient and stable network, as well as security, to stay online.
Another often-cited "killer app" of 5G is the pending arrival of the autonomous vehicle (AV) era. It's
an era that is closer than you might think: Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes, has
approval to test "driverless parking valets," for example. And while the onset of AVs sounds like a
consumer-grade enhancement, the true benefit of the AV era will be experienced by enterprises in
transport and logistics, construction, agriculture and more.
To enable the level of communication that AVs require to interact with each other and their
surroundings, each vehicle will connect the outside world to their various optical and acoustic
imagers, LIDAR-based sensors, inertial navigation systems and GPS with wireless connectivity.
Latency will need to be measured in single milliseconds or less to allow vehicles to communicate
their intentions as they navigate through a future environment filled with combinations of
autonomous, semi-autonomous and human-controlled vehicles.
The telehealth experience, where the doctor is remote from the patient is perhaps the most
pertinent and most critical event that 5G will need to support. While these remote consultations
were happening prior to COVID-19, some telehealth vendors have reportedly seen a year's worth of
traffic on their platforms in the space of a month. Forrester is now forecasting more than a billion virtual care visits in 2020 alone, as people look to improve their access to healthcare while
simultaneously reducing office, clinic and hospital visits.
But even as the pandemic subsides, these services will become more commonplace as people gain
confidence and comfort in how effective and convenient telehealth can be for them. To ensure a
wider variety of diagnoses can be made more regularly, a seamless telehealth experience will
become vital. Video calls will need to be made in the highest definition possible to ensure accurate
We can expect additional biomedical sensors to be incorporated into handheld
devices and the transfer of high-fidelity medical telemetry and imagery between the patient and
doctor will need to be as quick and error-free as it would be during an in-person consultation.
While our mobile networks today have done all they can to get us to this point, 5G will be what
enables these scenarios to be realized at a scale and efficiency like never before.
Technologies such as 5G network slicing will allow network operators to adapt their networks to the
local environment by making them intelligent and responsive. These slices create virtual networks
out of the same physical network used by everyone else, but they will offer the same or better
network performance as if obtained from a dedicated network in terms of capacity, speed, latency,
and most importantly, availability.
For example, during emergency situations, network slicing will allow telehealth and first responders
to be given priority on the network over casual browsing and texting. Lifeline services can be
maintained during periods of extreme congestion despite 5G being shared. Network slicing partitions
portions of the network for specific customers and use cases and provides access to additional
capacity to ensure their network is prioritized.
Fortifying the network with fiber
Much of a 5G network's performance is predicated on the availability of fiber to cell sites along with
a change in the way networks are designed, deployed, managed, and maintained. The 5G network
should run on a platform built out of well-lit fiber and software, with functions virtualized so that the
network itself becomes intelligent and can "self-heal" without any human interaction or need to visit
a tower or microsite, for instance.
Deploying a network featuring artificial intelligence, machine learning, and advanced analytics
creates a more flexible architecture, one that can intelligently identify issues such as congestion
hotspots. As the network is built on a fiber and software platform, it can be optimized to ensure the
quality of experience in those areas does not suffer. Best of all, these necessary changes are made
swiftly and automatically by the software.
Getting all of this right will take time, continued investment and innovative thinking. While gamers
and video streamers may seem like the first to benefit from 5G, the goal is for people, our
enterprises, our organizations, and all of our "things" to be able to leverage this technology to
enable a future of seamless, ubiquitous connectivity.
— Steve Alexander, CTO, Ciena
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash