5G in the Workplace
How will 5G affect work and collaboration, and what hurdles stand in the way of this future?
The workplace of tomorrow will look vastly different from the workplace of today. For instance, in the future, workplaces won’t be defined by a physical location. The latest generation of cellular mobile communications, 5G, will help us get there. 5G’s defining characteristics, like high-data rates and low latencies, will unlock new applications for the workplace that were simply not possible in the past.
Enterprises anticipate big changes in the next 5-10 years as 5G brings new capabilities to the table. Will 5G hit like the workplace like a train, or will its effects come in waves?
Ericsson predicts by 2024, 5G will reach more than 40% population coverage and 1.5 billion subscriptions, making it the fastest generation to be rolled out on a global scale. No matter how or when 5G comes, it will.
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The arrival of 5G raises questions about security, too. Unlike traditional networks with a controllable number of entry points to a network, with 5G, there may be thousands—maybe even millions—of entry points. As a result, the way enterprises defend these entry points will need to change. At the same time, it can also be argued that 5G will lead to a safer, more secure workplace.
5G will enable new ways of working and collaborating, potentially freeing employees up to innovate. It will also make current workplace applications better. The next generation of workers will build their lives and careers in a society and a workplace enabled by 5G. What might work and collaboration look like in this future, and what hurdles stand in the way?
May 28, 2019
Peggy and Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO, Wireless Infrastructure Assn., talk about what we need to build five times the amount of infrastructure we have, in the next 5 years, to get to 5G. He explains the cost of making the move, and how it will need to be implemented both in urban and rural areas.
The Magic of Low Latency
Scott Schober, president and CEO of Berkeley Varitronics Systems, says 5G will provide significantly faster data transfer speeds and could address latency issues associated with 4G LTE (long-term evolution). “4G LTE still contains inherent latency issues that will also be addressed with 5G connectivity,” Schober explains. “It is estimated that latency for 5G will be lower by a factor of 100 in comparison to 4G, which is a game changer for emerging applications such as AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality), and most peer-to-peer communications.”
Buck Bard, chief harbinger and innovation coach at Canary Works, similarly says the real game changer in 5G is latency elimination. “Today, there are things you simply cannot do outside the wired office because the response times are simply too slow,” Bard says. “What if a worker could go to a machine and, through AR, ‘see’ what was going on in very realtime, instead of now where the data has to be collected on the device, move through a production network, then to the commercial side, then up to the wireless phone system, and down to your phone.”
In the industrial arena, eliminate the latency and there’s no end to the number of innovations that may occur. “Look at every job where a human is required to make a decision, no matter how minor,” Bard says. “Even a janitor has to look at areas and decide how to clean and where to spend more time. With latency gone, robots will become common.
The simple—and complex—decisions that we make every minute of every day will be available to machines. A lot of dangerous, and boring, jobs will move to automation.”
One example is the control room. “As intelligence moves further out to the device and connectivity becomes more robust, the whole paradigm of control rooms will change,” Bard explains. “Right now, operators watch production and adjust accordingly, but as controls and devices become more intelligent, the operators will shift to simply monitoring the decisions made on the edge. All of the pieces are here today except the connectivity. 5G will be a larger enabler of Industry 4.0 than people imagine.”
5G in Manufacturing
The desire to improve operating efficiencies is one of the main reasons we are starting to witness the proliferation of more manufacturing facilities investing in the IoT (Internet of Things). Many are calling it the fourth industrial revolution, otherwise known as Industry 4.0.
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Are Manufacturers Ready for 5G?
The importance of 5G is going to be profound. And it’s going to be important to the future of the Internet of Things and more specifically within the context of the workplace. The real question then is how might 5G affect workplaces?
New Ways of Working
Caroline Gabriel, principal analyst, research for Analysys Mason, says 5G will benefit the workplace in part by making existing applications better. “High data rates and QoS (quality of service) will increase the quality and usability of some existing workplace applications, such as mobile video conferencing,” she says. “This will make it more practical for companies to go mobile-first and reduce reliance on fixed connections.”
5G could help support, enable, or accelerate innovations in the workplace, like VR and advanced robotics. It could also support entirely new approaches to work in the future. “Low latency combined with high data rates can enable working processes based on virtual/augmented reality, such as the use of digital twins for training or product inspection,” Gabriel says. “(And) some firms are developing collaboration tools based on holographics.”
… High data rates and QoS (quality of service) will increase the quality and usability of some existing workplace applications, such as mobile video conferencing …
There are also specific workplace environments that could introduce new processes based on 5G or mobilize processes that to date have only been supported by fixed connections. “Factories and warehouses can use mobile robots and digital twins to increase automation and efficiency,” adds Gabriel. “Collaborative robots, which work alongside humans in the workplace, particularly need to be mobile rather than tethered like most current robots.”
Just like anywhere-mobile-data access improved productivity of many workplace processes in the eras of 3G and 4G, Gabriel says the ability to use new 5G-enabled applications from any location will drive their increased usage and value. 5G will also drive innovation in hardware. New device form factors will emerge as a result of 5G in the workplace, including AR headsets for factory inspection.
“The ability to analyze data almost in realtime—with big data and AI (artificial intelligence) engines running on a smartphone or near the user on an edge computing node—will change business decisionmaking processes and increase the accuracy and depth of response,” Gabriel says. This is only partly due to the 5G connection; improvements in affordable storage, processor technology, and analytics are all crucial too. “5G is very much one tool in a wider platform to support new ways of working,” Gabriel adds.
Edmund Yeh, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern University, says the workplace will benefit from and change because of 5G’s dramatically increased speeds and connectivity. “Smartphones and VR/AR applications can significantly reduce the need for laptops and desktops,” he says. “VR conferencing will enable people to meet virtually over large distances, thus reducing the need for physical offices.”
… The ability to analyze data almost in realtime—with big data and AI (artificial intelligence) engines running on a smartphone or near the user on an edge computing node—will change business decisionmaking processes and increase the accuracy and depth of response, …
While it’s difficult to predict the detailed changes 5G will bring, Yeh says: “I think we will see the world differently, at a different sensorial speed and scale. VR, when it is perfected, will certainly affect this. 5G should bring us much closer to realizing autonomous driving and various other control tasks.”
Some of the most dramatic changes may take place in manufacturing, where sensors, actuators, and robotics will combine with 5G connectivity to optimize the manufacturing process like never before. “The key is that the very low latencies and high reliability achievable in 5G will make realtime control over wireless channels a reality,” explains Yeh.
“With this, one could even imagine a scenario where geographically separated factories can jointly control their respective factory floors for optimal performance. All of these effects will be further magnified when AI and machine-learning technology is combined with wireless connectivity to perform computation and control tasks.”
In general, 5G will enable more mobile workplaces. “Imagine not requiring your technicians to visit the field equipment to diagnose their problems. Instead, using AR, the technician can investigate the equipment remotely and diagnose the problem from the central office location,” says Babak Beheshti, IEEE member and dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences at New York Institute of Technology.
5G will also give new meaning to the old term “telecommuting.” “Imagine having near-realtime access to all the data available locally within your company, interacting with your coworkers via high-definition video and audio, and being able to have telepresence on the factory floor or the design room from your remote location,” Beheshti says. “With IoT devices constantly streaming data to your workplace, you would be able make instant business decisions to improve your company’s productivity.”
Challenges and Security
Infrastructure costs for deploying 5G are steep. Berkeley Varitronics Systems’ Schober says 5G networks carry more data but travel less distance. “This requires more physical infrastructure, such as towers, antennas, and relays than even 4G,” Schober says. “We are only now beginning to see significant investments being poured into 5G network build-outs and will continue to see much more in the coming years until 5G gains widespread deployment for adoption by the masses.”
Because 5G requires large investments, the business proposition can be challenging. Analysys Mason’s Gabriel says U.S. operators need to establish a clear business case for investing in 5G that is optimized for enterprise and industrial usage, not just for the conventional mobile broadband applications.
“5G will become prominent for consumer, home, and mobile broadband services in the U.S. before many other countries, because the operators have moved quickly, and there is a high demand for applications enabled by high data rates, such as AR gaming,” she says. “However, to transform the workplace, there needs to be investment in adjacent technologies like edge cloud infrastructure, network slicing, (and) new device form factors.”
Further, 5G has inherent security concerns because of the large number of devices—i.e., attack points. The New York Institute of Technology’s Beheshti says for a 5G network to be secure, all of the devices within that network have to be compliant with 5G security requirements. “This means that the enterprise network that currently accommodates many BYOD (bring-your-own-device) users will have to rethink its strategy,” he explains. “All personal devices that are intended to operate in a 5G enterprise network must be updated and compliant with 5G security regulations.”
Conversely, 5G may contribute to a safer, more secure workplace. Beheshti says 5G networks may rely more on open-source designs and technologies, which are usually subject to broader vulnerability testing than proprietary technologies. Therefore, the use of open source could mean be a positive boon for network security. Security concerns related to 5G’s large attack surface will likely spur many new security-related R&D (research and development) projects, which will benefit the enterprise space as a whole. 5G may also drive organizations to implement more rigorous mobile security policies and improve overall best practice.
Evolution of mobile networks
Marc Wilkinson, chief technology officer for workplace and mobility at DXC Technology, says with faster network speeds, 5G will enable workers to increase their productivity anytime, anywhere. Enterprises will also have more options to deploy 5G cells and will no longer experience the capacity and reliability issues they currently experience with Wi-Fi. However, security must remain front and center.
“Security must be woven into the fabric of the services that companies create,” Wilkinson says. “All the shifts to cloud and mobile-first enablement must have security as part of their DNA. It is a critical underpinning to digital workplace solutions, and 5G technology could improve this even more. However, work still needs to be done in making management and security controls available to the enterprise and the carriers in some 5G use cases.”
The promise of lower latency, better bandwidth, and energy efficiency will unlock new opportunities for enterprises, including those in AR, realtime communications, and robotic process automation, but 5G in the workplace will not be an overnight development. Changes will be incremental, first adding capabilities to existing services and markets and then enabling real transformation through process automation, VR-assisted collaboration, and mobile robotics.
When this happens, it may free employees up to innovate. “Enterprises can change the way employees work by providing flexible, expansive workplaces with the right technologies and policies,” Wilkinson concludes. “The result will be a better user experience, an appealing work environment for recruiting and retaining talented employees, higher levels of productivity and innovation, increased speed, and greater business agility. Those who understand the new definition of the workplace and adopt its enabling technologies, including 5G, will be the digital leaders of tomorrow.”
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