In today’s world, we take for granted our ability to summon private drivers in seconds, order thousands of products for same-day delivery, and stream millions of songs, videos etc. instantaneously. These conveniences have fundamentally changed our daily lives. The ascension of these services is linked to many areas of use, such as smartphones, mobile applications, and computing advances. It is the massive improvements in our mobile networks, though, that have been the greatest drivers of such innovation.
Today’s trailblazing companies depend on mobile networks to efficiently connect consumers with products and services. Amazon depends on 4G networks to deliver millions of products in 2 to 48 hours. Uber relies on ubiquitous, reliable mobile connectivity to assemble and dispatch a fleet of private drivers, couriers, and delivery services across the globe. These applications would simply not be possible without the incredible strides mobile networks have made in the past decade.
On the horizon sits the next step in wireless technology – 5G. This is not just another “G”; it is going to be an unprecedented driver of innovation, efficiency and productivity. This time period before 5G networks roll out worldwide represents a singular window of opportunity for entrepreneurs and enterprises of all sizes.
The first mobile networks emerged in the 1980’s. For the next three decades, new mobile paradigms followed a predictable cadence: GSM in the 1990s, 3G at the dawn of the 21st century and 4G in 2010. The goal of each new generation was to fix the flaws of its predecessor: GSM closed security holes in analog technologies, 3G supported mobile data and 4G significantly increased the efficiency of data consumption.[i]
The first set of companies to begin truly embracing the capabilities of mobile networks, and in particular the Internet, emerged in the years leading up to the new millennium. From 1997 – 2001, companies like Pets.com, Webvan, eRIDE and many others attempted to use the Internet to power new business models. Pets.com sold pet accessories and supplies direct to consumer. Webvan offered a first of its kind online grocery delivery service. eRIDE used wireless-enabled logistics to provide personalized ground transportation solutions. Sound familiar? It quickly became clear that these companies did not have the technology or proper execution to succeed. Inadequate mobile networks constrained their abilities to operate efficiently. As the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, all three of these previously mentioned companies, along with hundreds of others, went bankrupt.
Ideas that failed in the past have reemerged in new forms: Amazon, Instacart, GoogleExpress, Jet, Postmates, Uber etc. Taking a look at the success of these beloved tech brands today, it’s clear that some of the bankrupt companies from the dot-com period got something right – the vision. These companies were missing, among other things, one crucial component to executing on their ambitious business models: powerful networks.
4G networks have propelled this incredible innovation. On the heels of these successes, industry groups have agreed to three main goals for 5G technologies:
- Speed: Deliver 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) download link to start, with the potential for multi-gigabits in the future. AT&T recently announced it had achieved download speeds of 10Gbps. This represents speeds more than 100X faster than existing 4G networks.[ii]
- Latency: Latency, the time between when a request for data is sent and received, will be brought under one millisecond – a reduction of 95%. LTE networks currently achieve latencies of 16 – 20 milliseconds.[iii]
- Energy Efficiency: Network chips are some of the most power-consuming components in mobile devices. 5G networks will be significantly more efficient.[iv]
Case uses for this technology are tantalizing. The Internet of Things framework will expand with connectivity becoming a default feature in nearly all product categories. Autonomous vehicles will use complex grids to exchange billions of communications a second to promote safety, ease and efficiency. Video downloads will be supercharged allowing for 4K or 8K video at speed and real-time online virtual reality experiences. Cloud AI infrastructures will use deep learning and machine learning techniques to give every consumer the power of a supercomputer in his/her pocket.[v] Hyperbole does not do justice to the transformational effect 5G networks will have across industries of all shapes and sizes.
There are still some challenges ahead as the standard becomes finalized. In the past, the mobile industry has expanded its network capacity by adding spectrum, improving spectrum efficiency, or building infrastructure.[vi] Experiments with using higher frequencies to carry signals and new tower innovations are making progress toward addressing unresolved challenges. South Korean mobile carriers hope to bring online the world’s first consumer 5G networks for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.[vii] And many other countries, including the US, hope to follow suit at the dawn of the new decade.
5G is coming. Look around – what are the ideas, industries, companies that can execute on the coming revolution? Business applications that may not seem feasible with our current network constraints have immense potential in the coming decades. It’s likely that the Ubers, Amazons, Googles of the world will continue their momentous ascensions – but beyond these tech icons lay more hidden opportunities. With a multi-fold increase in data transfers worldwide, security infrastructures will have to adapt. Cloud infrastructure and server farms worldwide will need to continue to expand to keep up with exponential data creation and storage. Smart-AI powered systems and robotics will continue to displace human workers worldwide.
As I look at the companies I interact with in my daily life, I find it amazing that nearly all of them have emerged as leaders just this past decade. With so much value created in such a short span of time, there are many reasons to be equally optimistic that the next network revolution will propel a new wave of innovation. Recognizing and planning for that wave now presents a tremendous market opportunity. Will the Amazons, Googles, Ubers of today be overshadowed by the new innovators and creators of the 5G wave? Or will these leaders seize the moment and remain on the cutting edge for decades to come?