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5G an answer to the productivity puzzle or another false dawn?

(Image credit: O2)

5G – the much discussed and long anticipated upgrade to cellular mobile networking – is closer than ever to becoming a reality. In April, the biggest mobile operators in the UK spent almost £1.4 billion (opens in new tab) in an Ofcom auction to secure spectrum from which to launch next-generation 5G networks. Ooredoo, one of the largest mobile operators in Qatar – became the first in the world to a launch a live 5G network the following month. This October, EE launched its first live 5G trial in the UK, which it claimed was also the country’s first. 5G for businesses, as well as consumers, appears to be just around the corner and is understandably creating a lot of anticipation.

But is this justified and what do business leaders need to consider when assessing its impact?

Is 5G really a game changer?

In short, it is claimed that 5G will introduce higher data rates, lower latency (which translates to quicker response times) and more reliable connections. In turn, these qualities should form the foundation for a range of more data-hungry and critical applications than those currently supported by existing networks.

Sound familiar? A similar description was also used to herald previous iterations, particularly 3G and 4G, and while networks based on these standards certainly mark significant improvements, they haven’t resulted in radical changes to work place environments as of yet.

However, 5G does have the potential to bring about significant change. For the first time, mobile networks are expected to provide the equivalent of an on-site LAN connection in terms of speed, reliability, and security and this will mean that businesses will finally be able to rely more heavily on mobile connectivity in the workplace.

Is the workplace really set for change?

The impact of 5G is likely to be felt in the workplace in two main ways: impact on workplaces and impact on workers themselves.

Starting with the basics, higher bandwidth mobile connectivity will be of particular significance to organisations with a large number of remote field operatives or mobile workers carrying out physical, manual or practical tasks. For example, the engineering, health, blue light, construction and transport and logistics sectors all typically feature large numbers of mobile or remote workers, many of whom are already equipped with smartphones, tablets or rugged devices for connecting to applications in the cloud. With the advent of 5G, however, these businesses will finally have the network backbone to support applications that are far richer and more data-intensive and this will enhance the capabilities and productivity of those workers, enabling them to carry out more complex tasks than the 3G and 4G era ever allowed.

While this improvement might not be radical, 5G’s impact on traditional office workplaces will be significantly more drastic. More and more workers will have an opportunity to replicate their office environment from a remote or even mobile environment. And while previous developments in WiFi and cellular networks have started the trend towards distance working, this has often resulted in a hugely different work experience. This trade-off is likely to be greatly reduced by 5G. Opportunities for richer, more immersive videoconferencing and virtual meetings for example, which use augmented reality and even holograms, are particularly exciting.  Imagine holding a meeting where all the participants are in different locations but are able to interact with one another in a similar way to a traditional meeting. Applications and devices that can make this possible, such as VR headsets, are likely to become more commonplace, thanks to 5G’s ability to support higher bandwidth mobile connectivity.

Even workforce mobility itself will be driven by 5G. Future concepts such as Autonomous Vehicles and Smart Cities will be greatly enhanced by the improved connectivity on offer, changing the concept of business travel for those occasions where face to face meetings are still required. Commuting among the workforce who remain office based will also change, with improved physical as well as network connectivity. The upshot will be more collaborative and flexible working practices, which could help organisations to expand and partner with other organisations all over the world. Nomadic working will become far more commonplace, and virtual offices will become more prevalent, impacting the corporate property market.

Will corporate IT networks really have to adapt?

Hybrid networks, combining on-premise and cloud-based systems, are already the norm when it comes to corporate IT infrastructures and so on the face of it, further changes to a business’s internal networks might seem unnecessary.

However, 5G will enable the implementation of much more intelligent internal networks where the network edge can be pushed out further towards the user owing to the increased availability of a reliable, mobile connection. In turn, this creates a distributed environment, with localised connected compute and storage in mini islands of the cloud.

In practice, this means that businesses will rely less on traditional datacentre environments, and hyper-cloud players such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon, who already provide key aspects of corporate IT infrastructure, will need to seriously examine moving their cloud hosting capabilities away from gravitational centres. For businesses themselves, critical cloud-based applications and data will increasingly be placed in this type of cloud environment, closer to the end user, with the result being better availability and better performance.

Powering a UK productivity boost

Every previous generation of cellular mobile communications has arrived gradually, through a process of evolution, rather than being available everywhere instantly. 5G will be no different. In fact, since 5G requires more cell sites and this is costly for operators, the pace of coverage of networks is likely to be even slower. However, businesses shouldn’t dismiss 5G as another false connectivity promise. Indeed, some private enterprises may even look to gain competitive advantage by investing in their own 5G infrastructure, a little like the WiFi hotspots and in-building mobile solutions you already find in built-up areas today.

Whether your businesses use of 5G will be focused on improving mobile worker connectivity or will extend as far as implementing virtual office environments, the technology’s impact on the workplace is more than just hype and has the potential to deliver a major productivity boost. This is particularly important for the UK economy, which has historically struggled on this front. The rate at which 5G is likely to be rolled out will vary greatly across the globe too and it’s unsurprising to see that many of the countries that are likely to lead the race (opens in new tab) are also already ahead in the productivity tables. The UK and UK businesses are therefore likely to face a stark choice: embrace 5G’s potential productivity boost or risk falling further behind.

Dr Andrew Muir, CEO and Co-Founder, FarrPoint (opens in new tab)
Image Credit: O2

Dr Andrew Muir is the CEO and Co-Founder of FarrPoint. FarrPoint provide consultancy services for large public and private digital transformation projects. Clients include the NHS, MOD and Clarks shoes.