Enterprises are using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), edge computing, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to transform how they do business.

The common thread running through these technologies is the need to transmit and compute data at hyperfast speeds. The 5G networks slowly being built out around the world are expected to provide the mobile bandwidth required to fully leverage these and other new technologies and the explosion of data generated by them.

The speed of a 5G network is exponentially greater than that of 4G — estimates range from 20 to 100 times faster. Not surprisingly, these speeds mean far lower latency than experienced by mobile users connecting through 4G networks. Other advantages of 5G include greater capacity, flexibility and reliability.

While that’s great news for consumers who want to download movies on their smartphones in a few seconds, 5G is expected to be the first generation of mobile networks to have a bigger impact on enterprises than on consumers. That’s primarily due to 5G’s speed and superior capacity, which can handle the volume of traffic from remote employees, customers, partners, apps, mobile and embedded connected devices, edge networks and other sources.

The characteristics and capabilities of 5G will enable organisations to do things they’ve never done before, revolutionising entire industries and even municipalities. For example:

  • Manufacturers will be able to build smart factories in which connected devices can communicate with each other and sense their environments. This will allow intelligent machines — such as robots working on an assembly line or inspecting products for quality control — to make decisions in real time. 5G will provide the high-bandwidth speed, low latency and scalability to deliver actionable data almost instantly, increasing productivity while reducing downtime and maintenance costs.
  • Telemedicine has increased dramatically, resulting in a huge strain on networks that support healthcare providers, many of whom are struggling with network latency issues as they try to interact with patients or upload medical images. 5G will allow providers to quickly transmit large image files, use high-quality video during telemedicine appointments, increase their ability to monitor patients using wearable and in-home IoT devices, and eventually even perform remote surgery.
  • Energy and utility companies are under pressure to handle greater volumes of demand while controlling production and distribution costs as well as energy usage. 5G will play an integral role in supporting smart energy grids that rely on sensors and meters to scale up or down in real time to meet changing energy demands.
  • 5G also will be critical to the success of smart cities and autonomous vehicles, which must be able to analyse and respond to changes in their environment — such as a pedestrian suddenly stepping into the street or another vehicle swerving into their lane — in real time.

In addition to industry-specific solutions, 5G will benefit any enterprise that relies on data-intensive technologies such as VR and AR to train employees and repair equipment. And with more and more employees working remotely, 5G’s speed and low latency will make workers more productive while enabling long-distance collaboration with colleagues and business partners.

To be sure, widespread 5G deployment faces challenges and obstacles. Building a 5G network requires heavy investment in infrastructure, in large part because 5G frequencies do not travel as far as 4G frequencies (or travel well through solid objects). This means that carriers must not only build more towers, they must also build small antennas to help boost the 5G signal.

Given the manpower needs of a network build-out, global crises may further delay infrastructure construction and the manufacture of 5G-compliant devices. But the amount of money carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have already sunk into 5G infrastructure, along with 5G’s obvious potential to unlock the value of emerging digital technologies, makes it clear that the only question surrounding 5G is when — not if.