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Connected Cars, Smart Cities, and VR Classrooms: Welcome to the Age of 5G From agriculture to education, here's a look at what 5G will make possible.


When you think about the future, what do you envision? Self-driving cars? Machines that, through predictive maintenance, never break down? Virtual reality classrooms where students from around the world connect and learn?

Today, such technologies exist as possibilities, hovering on the horizon. But as 5G is rolled out, the next-generation cellular network could make this future a reality. While much has been made of 5G's potential for lightning-fast speed, focusing on a single application misses its transformative power: 5G will eventually offer consumers higher bandwidth, more consistent coverage, lower latency, and improved battery life for IoT devices compared to existing networks. "It's not about one thing," says Karri Kuoppamaki, Vice President, Technology Development and Strategy at T-Mobile.

Instead, 5G's capabilities stem from how these features can work together to build on what is in place today, Kuoppamaki says. "5G will expand the scope of wireless technologies to new capabilities, services, segments, and industry verticals."

Here are four environments already being shaped by the next-generation network.

Connected cars that communicate with surroundings, interpreting real-time info.

For automakers, 5G networks of the future will provide more reliable coverage, higher bandwidth, and lower latency. This could enable more intuitive data processing with short, almost non-existent lag time. "A 5G-connected car will be able to seamlessly communicate with other vehicles, interact with pedestrians' mobile devices and connect with smart infrastructure, such as traffic lights," says Roger Lanctot, an Associate Director in the Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics.

The result is a vehicle capable of responding to countless inputs in real-time, the first step toward developing truly autonomous vehicles. The first iteration will likely consist of alerts, initiated by the car itself, that warn about collision-avoidance opportunities, says Lanctot – a nearby pedestrian, for example, or an approaching car that doesn't appear as if it will stop at a red light.

Fully autonomous vehicles will likely roll out first in city centers, trucking corridors, and other contained areas where coverage is consistent, says Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, a wireless market analyst and director at Strategy Analytics. Welsh de Grimaldo notes that early use-cases could be public transport vehicles as part of a smart city initiative.

Lanctot says cars last an average of 10 to 15 years on the road, a period in which vehicles could go from having some connected features to completely taking over from human drivers. Given this timeframe, he predicts 5G will instigate "the fastest adoption of a next-generation network technology ever seen in the automotive industry."

"The impact of 5G on automotive will also become a boon for the logistics industry," says Mike Katz, Executive Vice President, T-Mobile for Business, who leads the company's B2B strategy. "Imagine autonomous trucks that can relay real-time vehicle and freight diagnostics data to fleet managers to monitor and improve operations. Voice communication with operations managers could very well be replaced by in-vehicle AR dashboards."

Remote-controlled agricultural equipment that monitors crop conditions.

Equipment makers are already exploring how 5G connectivity can potentially transform farming operations. "The network, with exponentially increased bandwidth and ultra-low latency, will support autonomous equipment capable of communicating and responding to a vast array of data points in real-time, from soil acidity to plant health to moisture levels," says Welsh de Grimaldo. From a maintenance perspective, this allows real-time monitoring of machinery "to make sure problems get taken care of before they become an issue," Welsh de Grimaldo says.

On a less high-tech level, but equally important, 5G will bring reliable coverage to remote agriculture areas that currently lack it. Patty Gentry, 52, runs a two-and-a-half-acre farm on Long Island, which supplies produce to local restaurants. She relies on internet connectivity to send out a list of available produce and receive orders from chefs.

Frustratingly, she often runs into connection issues, particularly when she does business further east on Long Island. Usually, the spottiness is a temporary annoyance—but collectively, it slows her operations down.

An often-overlooked advantage of 5G is that "it's the first technology generation that allows devices to connect to both 5G and LTE at the same time," Kuoppamaki says, which will eventually strengthen wireless connection even in remote areas as the two networks are deployed and work in tandem to improve reliability.

"Being able to track progress at all times throughout the entire supply chain is especially beneficial for agricultural producers," says Katz. "For a dairy manufacturer, for example, this starts at the farm and follows the product through the factory to distribution at retail. If there happens to be an E. coli outbreak, manufacturers could identify specific batches in distribution that may have been affected and pull those from the shelves."

Immersive learning in VR and AR.

With its higher bandwidth and lower latency, 5G promises to deliver a more inexpensive, efficient and overall superior virtual reality and augmented reality experience in the future. While there are countless consumer applications, the technologies also present compelling educational opportunities for business. "Companies have begun using AR to provide technicians with the schematics of building the machinery they are supposed to be working on in real-time," says Anshel Sag, a technology industry analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "AR and VR technologies make it possible for an experienced engineer to see exactly what an on-the-ground technician is seeing and provide remote guidance, with such applications already starting to be realized by the oil and gas industry," Sag continues.

5G could also have a huge impact on the traditional education system – bridging the digital divide by providing more access to reliable internet connectivity, digital content and tools, and access to specialized teachers virtually in rural school districts that have traditionally lacked these resources. As with enterprises, schools will be able to harness the power of AR, VR, and other online tools to connect students with educators who do not live in their immediate geographic area.

AR and VR innovation will be particularly impactful in rural environments where students don't have access to the same services and experiences as those in a dense urban environment. With 5G's ultra-low latency, in the future more immersive, live experiences can come to life and a student who doesn't live close to a Broadway show or museum can experience and learn in those environments as if they're there in real life.

Distance learning across international borders will also hugely benefit from AR and VR. "One of the cool possibilities with a very low latency network is the ability to do real-time translation," says Katz. "Think about taking a course or job training in Asia from a U.S. university or employer and in real-time a professor's lecture or colleague's instructions are translated into your native language. The last generation of mobile made the world feel a lot smaller due to the ubiquity of networks and the ability to offer low cost distance learning. But think about how much smaller the world feels if you can do real-time translation."

Safer, more responsive cities.

5G networks will eventually enable cities to harness vast amounts of information and new technologies in order to improve the quality, efficiency, and safety of their services and communities.

For example, Los Angeles, with more than 4 million residents and 500,000 businesses, is exploring how 5G could power life-saving use cases such as low-cost thermal sensors that detect a fire early, evacuation notices that can be sent anytime, and earthquake early-warning systems. "Every second counts when you are notifying schools, hospitals, and residents," says Ted Ross, the city's CIO. The technology could also transform the way Los Angeles operates day-to-day, improving everything from government services, to crime prevention, trash collection, and parking.

"There are tertiary insights that are starting to arise from the collection of data from these sensors," says Katz. "Cities could have devices deployed in hundreds of public transit vehicles and one of the data points transmitting from these sensors could be related to potholes. The aggregation of this data creates a map of where the potholes are, so that maintenance workers can more readily be dispatched to fix them. With 5G also enabling improved battery life for IoT devices such as these, cities could eventually save big on maintenance costs."

While new, innovative applications are already rolling out, Ross believes the full extent of 5G's power won't be visible for years, perhaps even decades: "Much like the early days of the Internet or the smartphone, the greatest uses of 5G are probably yet to be imagined."

Because of this, 5G's transformational power won't be evident from day one, Kuoppamaki says. Once it goes mainstream, however, "it will start stimulating innovation very quickly," he says. "I think the pace of change in 5G will be much faster and more significant than it was with LTE."

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