5G has been a source of debate during the pandemic – much of it based on misguided and misinformed comments. For a small, vocal minority, 5G has been the target of frustration and anger as a result of ongoing misunderstandings about what it actually is, how it works and what it will do. These misconceptions are not new – in fact, some of the misinformation around 5G started prior to the pandemic. But the fact remains that there are lingering doubts among some about the capabilities of this new network. The longer these doubts persist, the greater risk that people’s confidence in the widescale rollout of 5G could be impacted.

Delays to the rollout and adoption of 5G would postpone the widescale digital transformation that next-generation technology will enable for thousands of firms around the world, which could result in future losses of economic activity for everyone, from large multinational corporations down to SMEs.

So what does the mobile industry need to do to tackle this and ensure that UK businesses not only understand the benefits that 5G will bring to their operations, but also to ensure that they are poised to make the most of them? It all starts with information and education.

Business adoption

If recent media coverage has suggested anything, it is not that people are unaware of 5G, but that there is a persistent stream of misinformation around the new network that has yet to be curtailed. Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that either the current pandemic or the myths related to it have caused any significant delays to the development and deployment of 5G, either in the UK or elsewhere. However, the impact on adoption of 5G and related technologies by businesses in the longer term remains to be seen.

A recent study from GWS found that despite strong awareness of 5G’s importance amongst UK businesses, key messages around what the network is comprised of, how it is to be deployed, and what it will do for them are not getting through. UK firms further reported a lack of clarity around why they need 5G. The good news is that the majority of businesses across the UK (56 percent) say 5G is already important to their organization. However, only a fifth (20 percent) see the provision of 5G applications and services as one of their top three mobile priorities over the next twelve months, compared to over twice as many who emphasize things like consistent voice call accessibility and quality (46 percent) and greater remote working connectivity (45 percent) as key operational priorities.

The question here is whether firms are aware of the full potential of 5G for their business activities, and whether they are beginning to invest now in the new or updated products and services that will enable them to take advantage of the power of 5G in future.

Network capabilities

One of the problems appears to be the fairly limited scope of existing messaging when it comes to 5G benefits, which often focus around increases in speed. The problem lies in the fact that the majority of people are already happy with the existing network speeds that they regularly receive, both at home and at work, to do the things that they do today. Faster speed is certainly a ‘nice to have’, but for many it does not feel like either a necessity or a step-change on what they already have.

The benefits of a fully developed and deployed 5G network, however, go far beyond faster speeds, encompassing greater reliability, reduced latency and increased rates of critical data-transfer. These aspects of the new network will be crucial for powering everything from autonomous vehicles, to remote robotics projects, to various other real-time applications including virtual and augmented reality. Businesses that deliver products and services based on the collection and transmission of data should see their capabilities enhanced dramatically, with hardware, power and data storage requirements all far more manageable using 5G. The network is also far more efficient in terms of utilizing available network spectrum and capacity. Crucially, this will not only enable more people to accomplish more things simultaneously on the same network but will also empower billions of low-powered Internet of Things (IoT) devices across the world to drive significant value through data.

Digital transformation

We’ve been reminded in recent months how important technologies are in terms of driving the global economy, especially now that remote working has become ‘the new normal’. We’ve seen the means by which businesses communicate with both their customers and employees change rapidly as result of the pandemic. We’ve also seen dramatic shifts in both applications and patterns of usage of a whole range of network-based technologies, driven by a rapid acceleration in the uptake of remote working. This has also gone well beyond office-based workers now working from home. Telehealth services, for example, have boomed during the pandemic, allowing doctors to remotely see patients whenever and wherever they need to.

As the possibilities of what could be achievable for businesses operating in a remote capacity continue to grow, the subsequent need for the advancements that 5G will bring in terms of latency, capacity, efficiency, coverage, reliability and overall wireless performance will also increase. That’s why it’s important to explain the enhanced capabilities of 5G in ways that business owners, their employees and their customers care about. A 5G-enabled future could allow a greater range of businesses to operate much more remotely. Instead of just office workers meeting virtually with colleagues around the world, it could mean engineers completing maintenance projects and responding to critical issues in real time from many miles away – which translates into increases in productivity and efficiency, meaning time and cost savings. It’s the difference between doctors hosting virtual consultations with patients from around the world via video link and having the ability to perform actual operations and surgeries remotely as a result of VR and remote-robotics applications.

We will become ever more reliant on this level of wireless and mobile connectivity to power tomorrow’s innovations and to supercharge the businesses of the future. But without knowing what 5G is, what it could achieve for businesses or when firms are likely to see those benefits, how can they be expected to take a stake in accelerating its arrival? It’s why now is a critical time for key mobile industry stakeholders – including authorities, operators and consumer-facing groups – to come together and make businesses aware of the tangible, positive changes that 5G can bring to their operations. This has to be done in a way that will resonate. The development and deployment of 5G is a journey – one that could unlock huge economic value in real terms by delivering a whole new generation of product and service offerings. But this can only be achieved if the mobile industry can bring businesses along stride for stride.

Dr Paul Carter, President and CEO, Global Wireless Solutions