Here’s an early look at the commercial implications of 5G

This year will be a landmark moment for emerging technology, thanks to the initial rollouts of hyper-fast 5G wireless networks. U.S. wireless companies are already rolling out 5G connectivity in select markets, laying the groundwork for low-latency Internet connectivity up to 100 times faster than today’s current 4G/LTE networks. The technology is expected to spur significant changes to diverse areas including autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and even economic growth.

5G also heralds the beginning of fast, ubiquitous connectivity, allowing apps, networks, and smart appliances to fade into the background even as their capabilities become greater and more impactful. We’re several years away from that point, as just a handful of cities will experience 5G this year. But as its availability becomes more widespread, 5G will influence everything from global prosperity to AI to how we think about cybersecurity.

The age of Internet-enabled prosperity

Internet access strongly correlates with a country’s competitiveness, so much so that the World Economic Forum called broadband connectivity a “silver bullet” for economic development. The organization asserts that the 5G-powered Internet will literally change the world by bringing unprecedented competitiveness and technological readiness to developing countries.

As high-speed Internet reaches more developing economies, it creates opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship, and education. It also encourages infrastructure investments that bring connectivity to even greater numbers of people. Those changes make a real impact, as evidenced by the World Bank’s estimate that a 10% increase in high-speed broadband penetration can lift a country’s economic growth by 1.38%. 

Ubiquitous Internet access will drive change across societies, allowing for the creation of a new generation of mobile apps and web-based services in everything from health to finance to education. The more people have access to basic healthcare information, or can learn about personal financial management, or are able to improve themselves through high-quality educational materials, the greater the potential for quality of life to improve.

The cybersecurity challenges of 5G

For all its potential, 5G also carries with it significant concerns about cybersecurity. Existing wireless infrastructure isn’t nearly as secure as it needs to be, largely because few companies accurately foresaw how rapidly the digital landscape would change. Trying to patch security holes one at a time is not a long-term solution, particularly as 5G multiplies the number of systems and devices connected to wireless networks. As more and more information is captured and stored in the cloud, security threats become more dire. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that President Trump mulled the idea of nationalizing 5G technology to cope with the problem (though the idea was quickly scrapped).

Faster Internet and increased cybersecurity facilitate a more robust and reliable Internet of Things (IoT). Yet it also means more devices connected to the web that are linked to personal data, creating more targets for data-hungry cybercriminals. Although smart devices are becoming more sophisticated, the IoT remains quite insecure, and 5G will only make it more vulnerable to serious breaches.

In a security white paper, researchers at the University of Surrey noted that IoT devices poses several challenges to 5G ubiquity. One is that older, redundant devices can cause network interference that is “the radio equivalent of space junk or seas full of plastic bags.” But embedding the option to remotely deactivate redundant devices increases the chances of Denial of Service attacks if the appropriate security protocols aren’t in place.

Another 5G data security challenge emerges from the sheer volume of devices that will be online. Gartner predicted that there will be more than 20 billion “connected things” by 2020. Many IoT devices are designed to have long life spans, making it difficult in some cases to implement regular security upgrades over their entire life cycle.

Protecting 5G networks against cyberthreats will be a monumental and ongoing effort that will need to address factors like app security, infrastructure protocols, and supply chain management.

The view from 5G

Even with the new classes of cybersecurity concerns that 5G raises, expect the technology to accelerate the deployment of advanced capabilities and emerging technologies. Here are four markets where 5G is already making an impact:

Transportation. One obvious beneficiary of faster Internet connectivity is the self-driving car sector. As 5G becomes more widely available, cars will be able to communicate directly with one another quickly enough to make autonomous vehicles viable at a mass scale.

However, other areas of the automotive industry like public transportation and delivery companies stand to benefit as well. Instead of having to follow the same routes regardless of traffic, bus lines could adjust in real-time based on current conditions. Commercial trucking companies would also benefit from 5G-enabled mechanisms. They could update their routes to respond to traffic patterns or weather events as well, and the responsive nature of their processes would allow them to provide more accurate delivery estimates to their clients.

Smart cities. 5G technology is the gateway to massive improvements in smart city development. Lightning-speed communication among traffic sensors, smart cars, smartphones, and energy grids represent new channels to improvement a city’s efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and public safety. Traffic lights that change based on traffic patterns instead of fixed schedules, sensors that collect information about public health trends, and energy grids that adjust according to usage are just a sampling of the systems that will support smart cities. Accenture estimated that 5G-related infrastructure investments will lead to the creation of 3 million jobs and add $500 billion to GDP growth.

Agriculture. Farmers have been pioneering the use of sensors and other IoT devices in monitoring their crops to optimize water and nutrient levels and scan for signs of disease. It has been estimated that by 2050, farms will produce approximately 1.4 million data points daily, each with the potential to contribute to growing more and higher-quality food.

5G also provides the connectivity backbone for IoT agricultural platforms that track livestock and automatically fertilize crops based on their health and environments. All of these functions are vital to ensuring high yields and profitability.

Media. 5G will change the game for media consumption and advertising, creating ever more overlap between the two areas. Companies that can track customer behaviors in real-time and capture location data will be able to serve hyper-relevant offers to consumers. The lines between entertainment and shopping will continue to blur as media platforms integrate purchase options and advertising experiences into their platforms.

In one word, “integration” neatly sums up the 5G future. The faster and better Internet connectivity becomes, the more easily and reliably billions—climbing to trillions—of devices will be able to communicate with one another instantly, continuously, and in real-time. That means we’ll be able to move seamlessly from point to point (both in the physical and digital worlds) with our devices and our data carrying us wherever we need to go.