The limited business case for 5G

5G or not 5G - that is the question...
26 January 2024

“Midjourney: 25 variations of an industrial warehouse” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • 5G networks may suit your organization.
  • Some physical and technological problems exist.
  • Don’t believe the marketing hype.

5G is one of those buzzwords that tend to be mentioned as part of a longer string whenever ‘next generation’ technologies are mentioned: AI, Web 3, the metaverse, and 5G. But unlike the elusive Web 3, the non-existent metaverse, and the disappointingly average ‘AI,’ 5G is a technology with practical use cases for businesses and private organizations today.

As the next step in cellular technology, 5G gets a great deal of airtime in the mainstream media, with cell networks proudly offering new phones, tablets, and hotspots equipped and ready for the very latest in interconnectivity. But short of upgrading your business fleet of cellphones to 5G, what are the practical effects of 5G in operational terms for businesses?

The headline features of 5G are its speed of data transfer and, sometimes more importantly, its low latency – the time taken, measured in milliseconds, for data flows to begin between devices and the nearest tower or access point. Low latency means that 5G-equipped devices can react more quickly to incoming data (there’s less waiting time between the sides of digital conversations) and have their outbound messages more quickly sent and acted on.

That’s why autonomous vehicles, for example, usually have a 5G element in their technological arsenals: fast updates to a real-time situation don’t suffer from delays in communication that would otherwise affect operations. If the car in front of you brakes sharply, and your autonomous vehicle is in a digitally controlled convoy of similar vehicles, your vehicle will know to brake an instant sooner and so avoid running into the car in front. The same could be said of fast-moving production lines comprising multiple machines: fast, low-latency comms between each would be advantageous in the event of a speed-up or sudden stop in throughput. The same situation might benefit from fine, real-time control over machinery, where one device’s performance can attenuate another’s speed.

Illustrative image for article on 5G networks for business.

“Worker in an industrial factory” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

5G networks explained

One of the downsides to 5G networks though is that to achieve faster communications, they use a higher frequency band of radio waves to communicate. And if your high school physics lessons stuck, you’ll know that the higher the frequency of a radio wave, the more susceptible it is to being blocked by an object, like a building or insensitively-placed hill between sender and receiver.

As a result, high-frequency radio waves effectively don’t travel as far due to their tendency to be absorbed by obstacles (that’s why you mostly hear the thumping, low-frequency bass in music from a noisy neighbor’s party and not so much of the higher-frequency vocals).

Data interchange on 5G happens on three frequency bands, low, mid, and high (the latter sometimes termed mmWave), to help ensure the best balance between distance, reliability, and speed.

In private settings and the right environments, therefore, 5G offers the types of speed and low latency equal to or in excess of cabled networks, but with all the advantages of wireless communications. Public, private, and hybrid (combining the first two) networks comprise cell points, a RAN (radio access network), a core that manages traffic, physical SIMs (the transmit/receive mechanism analogous to an old-school modem) and various mechanisms to prioritize or otherwise slice a network according to priorities or need. A large company with many manufacturing plants may use a hybrid 5G network, with the different facilities bridged by public 5G, yet operate a series of private 5G networks at each of the premises.

Notably, the frequency bands licensed for 5G vary from country to country, so sourcing equipment must be done carefully. Cheap imports may or may not work as desired and operate on unlicensed frequencies. The latter means that users may not actually be liable for prosecution – although this is probably worth some research – but could be subject to interference from others using the same frequency bands, whether accidentally or deliberately.

Private 5G networks offer several advantages, whether local to a single site or more widely spread over a hospital complex or college campus. The first is the ability to limit access to the network and isolate users from third parties. High-security installations will find this advantageous, as will environments where IIoT or IoT devices need to be separated from other networks.

5G in the workplace

The speed of 5G, especially if nodes are within direct line-of-sight, means disparate and widely-spread buildings or groups of buildings can be connected to one another easily, making a LAN (local area network) into a WAN (wide area network) with little overhead in terms of speed and responsiveness encountered by users. In the past, such connections were made by microwave radio links, which used even higher frequency connections that could be susceptible to interruptions caused by, for instance, heavy rain or wind blowing roof-mounted aerials slightly out of line.

Practical uses of 5G internal to an organization, therefore, depend very much on the type of business. In controlled and known areas, where high-speed comms and low latency are important, 5G offers some significant advantages. The costs of hardware and associated technology have dropped in price significantly in some markets over the last two or three years, especially where consumer uptake of 5G has been healthy. In the same way, few businesses would undertake upgrading their ethernet infrastructure from 5 to 6 wiring – using an outside contractor with appropriate experience and skills is likely the best way forward.

Unlike the consumer segment for 5G, which is driven almost entirely by marketing creating demand that need not exist (4G provides enough speed and bandwidth for high-quality video streams to most modern smartphones), there is no need to deploy 5G with a private network or public network subscription without just cause. But in some situations, this next generation of cell technology can be a game-changer for the early adopter.

Production line shot illustrating 5G networks explainer article.

“A candid shot from the iPhone production line.” by is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0