It's more than 20 years since the introduction of mobile wireless fundamentally changed how businesses operated, improving communication, increasing productivity and enabling entirely new business models and industries to grow and thrive.

Now in 2020, 5G is set to take us to the next level, promising new opportunities and truly disruptive change. It’s time to let your imagination go wild and brainstorm the ways your business is going to automate and innovate in a totally connected world.

5G, the fifth generation of wireless technology, will offer unprecedented wireless broadband speeds, potentially up to 10 gigabits per second. Factor that with low latency response times and it’s ideal for mission-critical communications. It also offers a whole new level of flexibility.

The key to that flexibility is network slicing, meaning the ability to divide up a broadband 5G service into multiple individual networks. These networks can have different settings and priorities: for voice communications, production processes, and tracking of freight or vehicles. Private 5G networks serving defined areas will be within reach.

It's also the first wireless standard to be designed from the outset not only for phones, but for many other devices. In particular, it provides a new level of support for devices to talk to each other. As a key element of the Internet of Things, these machine-type communications could revolutionise the factory floor.

Industry automation

Imagine a production plant where every part of the process is online and in real-time. Imagine being able to seamlessly control the production process according to the data being returned. You could automate that control, or use the data to create a computer model of your process or product that can help you understand and improve it, also known as a "digital twin”.

You don't need to be in the tech business to benefit from 5G. New Zealand manufacturers are already creating dashboards that help them better understand and improve their business processes. This new era of smart manufacturing has become known as Industry 4.0, or "the Fourth Industrial Revolution".

With 5G, services that might have been too expensive or complex to deploy in the past may soon be within reach. There’s almost no limit on the services you can conceive as 5G provides network support for up to a million devices per square kilometre.

Beyond the factory floor and in the world of transport and logistics, 5G's low latency could reinvent fleet management, and even allow remote operation of business vehicles. We may see onsite vehicles controlled from a central console and, as the network expands, vehicles "driven" remotely on our roads. Drones could be controlled precisely over long distances.

All the excitement is not just around industry. We've all become used to e-ticketing and electronic transactions. Imagine if you could make an in-store purchase simply via facial recognition technology over a 5G network. Or turn up to an event without a ticket and be recognised on entry.

Optimising the future

In healthcare, 5G could enable a new generation of always-on health monitoring devices which take advantage of 5G's potentially low power requirements and report data back to healthcare professionals. Using AI, this data could be analysed to detect risks early.

The way we power the economy itself may also change. As we face the realities of climate change, the power grid will likely become more distributed, with many smaller sources of electricity such as solar panels and wind generators. Concurrently we're seeing the growth of new kinds of energy use, most notably in in the case of electric cars and their powerful batteries. That all means a lot more coordination and balancing of supply and demand on the grid – a task for which 5G would be ideally placed to support.

This is a journey on which we've barely begun. There will be uses for 5G that we haven't yet conceived, new solutions that apply the unprecedented features of 5G to existing business challenges, and new features to come within 5G itself.

One good way to think about 5G is as a business toolbox. What gets built with the tools it contains will be a matter for the people who know their businesses best. The time to start thinking about that is now.

By Russell Brown