For several years, 5G has promised to transform connectivity for the better. The technology is designed to provide a high-speed, high-bandwidth connection free of wires and geographical constraints — but it hasn’t been fully rolled out in many areas, and experts doubt it will be anytime soon.
Despite this doubt, 5G implementation has continued steadily in recent years, moving closer to this promised future every day. In the first quarter of 2020, there were more than 63.6 million 5G connections worldwide — a number that translates to a more than 308 percent growth over the previous quarter.
Even the pandemic hasn’t done much to slow down 5G’s deployment. If anything, the need for a ubiquitous, fast connection is more pressing than ever because remote work is a necessity for so many people. By the end of 2020, it was estimated that more than 1 billion people lived in areas with 5G coverage, with more devices than ever supporting it (including Apple’s latest iPhone).
Despite these advancements, 5G has not reached its full potential. Speeds aren’t where they should be, and adoption still has a long way to go. The U.S. ranks last among 12 leading countries in 5G download speeds, and a 5G Edge report shows that ensuring compatibility with 4G, managing IoT deployments, and regulatory complexity all pose significant barriers to adoption. There’s no question the tides are turning, though, and 2021 could finally be the year that 5G goes from a bonus feature to a must-have.
However, many IT departments and managed service providers have been slow to prepare for a 5G-driven future. Their clients and customers have yet to show interest on any major scale, leading many IT leaders to believe they don’t have to worry about it yet.
In theory, this makes sense: Implementing new technology always brings risks and unknowns — especially when it’s something that hasn’t caught on with customers. However, this technological capability has been a long time coming. As it continues to cover more areas at faster speeds, clients and companies will begin wondering what they can do with it and how 5G will transform business itself.
It will be up to IT leaders to have answers to these questions.
Why now is the time to start preparing
Although it might seem prudent to wait until 5G truly hits the mainstream before spending too much time worrying about it, that sort of reactive response will put companies behind the times. This is especially true for anyone running MSPs or operating a business that works with the Internet of Things.
Clients will be curious about 5G to at least see whether they can use it as a backup connection for their main wired line. Remote employees with poor connections will be ready and waiting for this new future, and even those employees with stronger connections might inquire about company laptops with 5G capabilities so they can work from almost anywhere.
With the IoT — for which connectivity has always been a pressing issue — at least some use cases are already apparent. Whether it’s setting up security cameras to monitor remote sites or just improving the connectivity on a variety of appliances, there are countless opportunities to create and implement better products. Depending on who the clients are or what a specific business needs, IT leaders might need to be ready to switch out existing technologies with new 5G-supported options.
As a result, many MSPs will be looking for ways to use 5G to spark innovation in IT service delivery. The impact of 5G networks on IT will depend largely on what the IT world comes up with; who will come out of the gate with new use cases and fresh ideas? Many MSPs will become hybrid internet service providers in their own right — or at the very least, they’ll be there to provide backup connectivity as a service.
With that in mind, the leaders in this area will likely come from the firms whose CIOs spend time preparing and brainstorming with their teams around ideas they can launch quickly once 5G is ready to go. It won’t just be a matter of buying some new tech, either — there are important factors that must be considered when implementing 5G.
How CIOs can prepare for 5G’s future today
5G integration is a problem that will take time to solve. MSPs will take on the role of system integrators as solutions come out, and people will expect them to communicate via APIs. That means MSPs must be well-versed in cloud technologies as well as the APIs that connect them.
Like anything that involves connecting to the internet, security will be a major sticking point. IT departments will be responsible for keeping up with any security issues in 5G devices and stopping them before they become major problems.
Introducing 5G technology could lead to a whole host of vulnerabilities: 5G supply chains will be susceptible to malware and attacks, and the deployment of 5G will require more communication technology, which could be at risk of hacks and other forms of disruption. And because 5G will have to integrate with many existing 4G networks, it will take on their existing vulnerabilities. Although 5G users will seek seamless integration and interoperability, many might struggle to achieve that vision.
All of this is a serious undertaking and will require a lot of work. To prepare for these changes, IT leaders have to make sure their teams and stakeholders are on board and ready to be involved in the process.
5G represents an evolution in IT services, which means it’s a great time to think big and let employees’ imaginations run wild. CIOs must empower their teams to make recommendations and come up with bold ideas. They need to encourage everyone to dig deep into current processes, identify any flaws they see, and figure out how 5G might help. Remember: The best way to prepare for 5G is to let team members ensure its success.
Although there’s some debate about when 5G coverage in the United States will become mainstream, there’s no question that its time is coming — and fast. Don’t put off preparing for the transformation it will bring. Plan ahead now to put your business in a position of leadership when that time arrives.
Shawn Freeman, VP, Fully Managed