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5G: The key to unlocking the future of digital platforms

Rather than simply providing faster mobile broadband, 5G is a network architecture evolution. It will entail a new way of building mobile networks, and the components of this architecture can deliver different business benefits. Through 5G features such as E2E network virtualization, network slicing, massive machine type communications, ultra-low latency, and mobile edge computing, a 5G network can deliver a technology platform that enables enterprise benefits such as cost savings, improved customer experience, enhanced safety, and new revenue streams, writes GlobalData Senior Analyst Malcolm Rogers. 

5G’s potential

Globally, 5G network rollouts are accelerating in every region. Handset vendors continue to launch new 5G-ready smartphones and consumers have begun experiencing mobile download speeds well above 100 Mbps. Indeed, 5G can provide high-capacity connections, boosting video streaming and decongesting rush-hour buffering. However, 5G isn’t just about an enhanced mobile broadband experience for the everyday consumer, it will also transform enterprise network architecture. 5G will deliver bandwidth of up to 10 Gbps, which is only possible today over a dedicated fiber connection. But beyond high-capacity links, 5G will drive carrier network transformation. A key component of 5G networks is E2E virtualization (from RAN to core), which enables network functions to be cloud native and artificial intelligence (AI) to be integrated, and drives automation.


Despite the hype around the technology and its potential for enterprise applications, up to 60 percent of IT leaders say that they’re not fully aware of the benefits of 5G, according to research by GlobalData.


Connecting everything

Beyond enhancing mobile broadband speeds, 5G will be intrinsic in delivering the next generation of IoT solutions for enterprise and government. Currently, 4G/LTE IoT networks can support sensor connections in the thousands on a single cell. These sensors, devices, gateways, and other connected things collect data, communicate with each other and the network, and collect and analyze business data. This class of solution uses 5G’s enhanced capacity for connecting to a site and is referred to as massive machine type communications (mMTC). mMTC solutions will be the underlying technology that delivers smart utilities, smart manufacturing, and smart city concepts such as dynamic traffic control, and will be used widely in predictive maintenance.

For enterprises, mMTC works to reduce downtime, increase asset utilization, and improve worker safety, ultimately lowering the unit cost of production. These technologies will be central to delivering outcomes for Industry 4.0 and smart city projects that are occurring across the globe.

Take a slice

5G will do more than connect machines and sensors across the factory floor. 5G also has the potential to transform traditional corporate network architecture. Historically, mobile networks have never been viewed as a primary access means for an enterprise wide area network (WAN). However, as 5G proliferates, and more standards and features are added to operator networks, enterprises will begin to consider 5G as a legitimate and critical component for a next-gen wide area network (WAN) solution.

As 5G networks mature, new capabilities will be added. One feature, which is planned to be standardized in the coming years, is network slicing, or the logical separation of different virtual networks running on the same underlying physical infrastructure. Network slicing, when integrated into a corporate WAN, will enable IT managers to create separate network slices that adhere to policies around bandwidth, quality of service, and more, all on a per application basis. It also allows for networks to be partitioned. Considering the mMTC component of 5G, where operational technology will also be supported alongside IT systems, slicing will be critical for security and compliance as well.

When it just can’t wait

Another critical component of 5G evolution is the introduction of ultra-low latency mobile services. Currently, 4G/LTE networks can deliver network latency as low as 50 ms, and while this is sufficient for many business tasks, it can deliver next-gen solutions like autonomous vehicles, real-time video analytics, and remote surgery. 5G has a target minimum latency of 1 ms, with many carriers and their vendor partners already achieving sub-30 ms latency in real network environments, which is 10 times faster than human reaction speeds.  This opens up a host of new possibilities for industry, healthcare, and even consumers.

A critical enabler of ultra-low latency applications running on 5G networks will be 5G mobile edge compute (MEC). MEC is a technology platform that brings the compute and storage functions of traditional data centers and cloud, and brings them physically closer to the edge of a network, where devices collect and transmit data. MEC platforms will differ from other forms of edge compute by natively integrating into the 5G network, which is a key factor that will help deliver ultra-low latency applications. MEC will enable enterprise to run workloads quickly, without the need to keep servers on site, but also without the need to send data all the way to a cloud or data center for processing. This will drive the use of AI for automation and other use cases, with the ability to run AI models more quickly and effectively.

MEC can also enhance security. By placing compute resources at a 5G base station on site, or nearby, sensitive data does not have to travel far for processing. This will be critically important in heavily regulated industries like banking, healthcare, aviation, and government.

Globally, enterprises are already adopting hybrid cloud services, which sees a combination of public cloud, private cloud, and on-premise compute environments used by the same company. 5G will help drive the adoption of edge into this paradigm, as the technology enables even more granularity in the optimization of where applications run.

Putting it all together

The true potential of 5G doesn’t come individually from enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine type communications, network virtualization and slicing, ultra-low latency, or mobile edge compute. Rather the true potential is unlocked through a combination of two or more or all of these elements together. The most impactful 5G solutions and use cases draw on multiple components. Some of these include autonomous vehicles; augmented/virtual reality and mixed-reality for field workers; dense sensor monitoring for asset tracking and preventative maintenance; and the use of wearables to improve applications like workplace health and safety, real-time video analytics, multi-tenant network environments, and tactile Internet.

Right now many operators are focused on the more pragmatic – delivering enhanced download speeds and decongesting networks at peak hours. For example, fixed wireless access (FWA) for businesses and homes is an early use case being put forward by operators like Verizon in the US and Optus in Australia.However, there are technology trials happening around the world that are helping industry move towards the full potential of 5G. Globally, mobile operators are rushing to visualize their network core, transport, and RAN to prepare for the 5G future. The more forward-looking operators are working with partners to trial more advanced 5G services, for example, SK Telecom in South Korea offers a factory automation solution based on 5G MEC. The idea for these operators is to use 5G to transform mobile networks from providing connectivity to becoming a digital platform that supports enterprise solutions.

5G use case: 5G smart port from ZPMC, China Mobile, and Huawei

ZPMC, one of the world’s largest crane and steel structure manufacturers, partnered with Huawei and China Mobile to design a solution for port operators that enables the increased automation of port operations, enhanced worker safety, and quicker processing of goods through ports.

The solution draws on several critical components of 5G, including enhanced mobile broadband throughput, network compartmentalization, ultra-low latency, and mobile edge compute.

The 5G Smart Port solution consists of the following two parts:

1. 5G+MEC campus-network: The 5G smart ports implemented by China Mobile, ZPMC, and Huawei are built through the 5G-MEC campus-network. A 5G base station, on–site at the port’s campus, supports both public services and campus private services. China Mobile defines independent sub-PLMNs (Public-Land-Mobile-Networks) and provides separate SIM cards for ports. Public- and private-network users access different sub-PLMN cells and establish routes respectively with the  public 5G core network and the port’s local 5G-MEC (UPF).

2. 5G Port applications:

a. Remote-control cranes: Cameras on the port’s cranes transmit multiple 1080p video images to a control center through the 5G network. The crane driver performs operations remotely based on video images from the site. Depending on the size of the crane, the number of cameras ranges from 6 to 27. The 5G network provides 30 Mbps – 120 Mbps uplink bandwidth and 30 ms low latency.

b. IGV (Intelligent-Guide-Vehicle): Ports rely on manual driving of container trucks. Some automated ports use 4G-based AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles). However, AGVs cannot assess the surrounding road conditions. IGVs install cameras and sensors around the vehicle and transmit detailed road conditions to the MEC platform over 5G. A single IGV needs 8 channels of 1080p video images, occupying about 40 Mbps uplink bandwidth, and requires a latency of 20 ms. The speed of an IGV can reach 40km/h, twice the speed of an AGV. The end-to-end horizontal transport efficiency can be increased to 2.5 times more than an AGV. Self-driving container trucks that can reduce labor costs will also be realized with the same technologies.

c. In smart ports, more applications such as IVS (Intelligent Video Surveillance) and AR remote maintenance are using the capability of connectivity and compute provided by 5G and MEC.

5G use case: 5G smart airport from China Eastern Airlines, China Unicom, and Huawei

China Eastern is one of the world’s largest airlines and, with China Unicom and Huawei, has developed a 5G smart travel solution for Beijing’s Daxing Airport. The solution was designed to improve customer experience, drive the automation of ground tasks, improve airline on-time percentages, reduce airport Wi-Fi congestion, enable low-latency AI-based applications, and future-proof the networking environment.

The solution draws on several critical components of 5G, including enhanced mobile broadband throughput, ultra-low latency, and mobile edge compute.

In partnership with China Eastern, China Unicom and Huawei deployed a 5G network in the newly built Beijing Daxing Airport, the biggest 5G airport in the world and the first where airlines have integrated 5G in to the civil aviation business flow.

China Unicom’s network covers the whole of Beijing Daxing Airport with 3,000+ 5G LampSites and 80+ outdoor 5G Active Antenna Units (AAU).

The network provides a massive amount of data transmission, which China Eastern Airlines needs to unlock truly personalized services for their customers. The network capacity in Daxing Airport is designed to meet 10 TB/day and can support flexible capacity expansion. Network speeds can exceed 1.2 Gbps and deliver a superior 5G experience for passengers.

It has sufficient capacity and coverage to serve both the aviation network and passenger access in the public network. Most scenarios are based on 5G indoor networks, while the network also leverages 3G and 4G infrastructure. Sharing infrastructure improves network operation efficiency and reduces costs by eliminating the need for two co-located networks.

China Eastern Airlines utilizes the 5G network to manage three aspects of its business:

  • Passenger services such as automated check-in and face-recognition ID checks using an AI application running on edge.
  • Luggage tracking and management by both passengers and CEA staff.
  • Personalized communications with passengers.

The 5G Smart Travel Service was commercialized in September 2019 and aims to achieve:

  • A maximum of 20 minutes from check-in to boarding. Passengers no longer need to show ID or scan QR codes. They can complete all travel transactions from ticket purchase to check-in, security checks, and boarding just by having their faces scanned. Flight attendants can guide them to their seats using the facial recognition system. China Eastern Airlines staff will wear 5G augmented reality (AR) glasses with facial recognition to quickly identify and assist passengers.
  • Convenient paperless luggage service and end-to-end visible luggage transportation. Using the world’s first RFID permanent luggage badge, the partners developed a 5G baggage tracking solution that allows passengers to track the status of their checked-in baggage on an app. Thanks to the higher 5G uplink capacity, Daxing Airport will use HD video to luggage monitor and alert staff when luggage is mishandled. This allows for the better management of luggage, ensuring the correct routing of luggage and preventing flight delays.
  • Personalized services to improve the passenger experience throughout the entire trip, including pre-flight reminders, check-in, boarding, changes to boarding gates, baggage claims, and transfers. These services can be tailored to passengers’ locations, membership tiers, and time requirements. For example, passengers can see information about their upcoming flights on the smart display as they walk through the airport. Their face ID will be recognized and information will be displayed anonymously to protect privacy. VIP passengers in the lounge can use HD conference and cloud services.


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