Authored by Elizabeth Chamberlain and John English
The telecom industry has long viewed 5G as a game-changing technology that would usher in innovative applications such as connected cars, remote surgery, and smart cities. And as 2020 rolled in, it looked as if that promise was starting to unfurl. The world was already on the move with planning, trials, and initial deployments of 5G technology. Both non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA) 5G architectures were already beginning to show the expected communications improvements and benefits.
Then the pandemic hit. As COVID-19 dramatically changed the way we live and work, 5G’s advances have shone even more brightly. In some ways, 5G has been the technology we needed to help cope with this pandemic and its aftermath.
5G and the Work-from-Home Imperative
In the early days of the pandemic and its resulting stay-at-home orders, a family of four working and schooling over standard wi-fi would overwhelm the connection. Almost immediately, subscribers started to shop around for better, faster internet service. With the “best” option not available everywhere, some resorted to running multiple home networks—gamers and schoolers on one, and corporate remote workers on another. Consumers started looking for the 5G-capable phones so they could take advantage of hotspots for faster connections. Here the most basic benefit of 5G for the average user was realized: faster connection (higher bandwidth) and lower latency. As a result, applications such as Webex and Zoom conference calls had faster throughput and less quality-destroying jitter and buffering.
Homebound consumers also have delved into the world of the automated connected home, brought to us in a more efficient way via 5G NarrowBand IoT. No need for keys, garage door openers, and manual grocery list making—our lives are voice-activated and -learned routines. Lights, locks, and security are configured and automated; if you have a smart refrigerator, even groceries are ordered, because your refrigerator knows when you are low on staples.
With virus cases spiking across the globe, telehealth visits, pop-up hospitals, and testing centers emerged to help manage the curve. Decentralizing the traditional health care model in this way allowed more people to receive care safely, reserving traditional hospitals for the most-affected patients. Transfers of massive files, images, and other medical content benefit from low-latency characteristics of 5G, allowing doctors and nurses to make time-critical decisions.
Beamforming and Other 5G Benefits
New millimeter-wave 5G radios and edge computing combine to deliver ultra-low latency, high bandwidth, and reliability. A 5G cell site is about the size of a large suitcase and can be more easily installed compared with 4G/LTE. Although the reach of 5G radios is not as far as 4G, being able to concentrate on a smaller area without wasting resources on an unused field can lead to more-efficient deployments. This 5G capability is called beamforming—the ability to concentrate bandwidth over a focused area such as pop-up hospitals, allowing health care workers to quickly adapt, monitor, and change treatments for patients.
As we usher in 2021 with new vaccines and drug therapies for COVID-19, we also are on the cusp of experiencing more 5G benefits, with vendors deploying 5G mobile edge computing (MEC) and network slicing as part of this new Service Based Architecture (SBA). Given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, all the benefits and opportunities provided by 5G technologies are timely. Supply chains, monitoring, health care networks, mobility services, and heightened levels of cybersecurity will be crucial to as the world emerges post pandemic.
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