Carriers continue to target consumers with their 5G services, but enterprises are expected to reap the most benefits from the cellular standard. Still, faster wireless connectivity won't come without a cost. Many businesses may have to retool their infrastructure to take advantage of 5G's performance. Let's examine the pros and cons of 5G networks.
What is 5G technology?
5G is the fifth generation of technology that supports cellular communications and, compared to 4G, offers faster speeds, lower latency and a more uniform experience. It's expected to usher in a constellation of new high-speed services, including those based on machine learning and AI, that redefines how enterprises and consumers use the wireless spectrum to communicate and transact business.
What are the pros of 5G?
With a theoretical speed of up to 20 Gbps, 5G offers data rates that are orders of magnitude greater than 4G and 4G LTE. The actual speed an enterprise customer is able to use from its 5G provider depends on a variety of factors, among them proximity to towers, the technological sophistication of the carrier itself and whether network components have been engineered to support multigigabit performance. That said, 5G enables enterprise use of services, such as automation and advanced video conferencing capabilities, that were unavailable with older standards. Not only does 5G offer higher speeds, but it offers something equally important: low latency.
2. Low latency
Compared to 4G, 5G significantly reduces the time it takes for network devices to respond to commands. With 4G, latency ranges from approximately 60 milliseconds to 98 ms. 5G reduces latency to less than 5 ms, but the ultimate target, according to standards body 3rd Generation Partnership Project, is under 2 ms. With latencies this low, the lag that can plague real-time communications is all but eliminated. The result is a new generation of wireless services that should work identically, regardless of their location. Improved latency is also a central component of standalone 5G, which carriers continue to test.
5G supports the simultaneous connection of many more devices than 4G -- up to 10 times more per square kilometer by some estimates. Therefore, enterprises no longer have to assess their cellular and Wi-Fi wireless strategies as an either-or proposition. With 5G, companies can switch between cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity as needed without fear that performance suffers or that mobile broadband accessibility is limited, especially in high-congestion environments, such as New York City and other major urban areas. 5G's additional capacity fuels a dramatic increase in IoT as businesses can deploy more connected devices to monitor systems and perform other operations.
4. Advanced technology enablement
5G fuels the emergence of a new generation of interactive services based on AI and machine learning. High-speed video conferencing that features augmented reality or virtual reality, for example, can simulate environments and help employees make better decisions about projects. Automation enables enterprises to rely on applications and services that are more responsive and predictive than traditional measures.
5. Network reimagination
5G could motivate leading companies to reimagine their networks, adding automation and other capabilities as needed. Branch offices could use 5G as their primary connectivity medium, relying on multiple carriers for internet service via physical or virtual SIM cards. Private 5G networks, meanwhile, give enterprises the chance to run their own restricted-access networks through which they can deliver specialized services and applications. Edge computing should become more widespread, thanks to 5G-compatible components that rapidly process and respond to requests, reducing the need for data center backhaul.
What are the cons of 5G?
5G's transport security algorithms are more comprehensive than those supported by the 4G standard, but enterprises may still encounter other cybersecurity issues. Although applications transported by 5G networks may be encrypted, the standard itself lacks end-to-end encryption, and lack of encryption early in the connection process can leave enterprises potentially open to attacks. The sheer number of IoT devices and components attached to 5G networks dramatically increases enterprise exposure to threats as attackers attempt to exploit vulnerabilities. Another potential drawback of 5G: The 5G devices themselves could be cause for concern, as chips and other components engineered to drive those devices could be infected with malware by nation-state actors. Enterprises also need to carefully weigh the use of network slicing -- creating a virtual network to carry a dedicated application or service -- with their 5G networks. 5G management software can be vulnerable to attacks; a breach in any part of the carrier's or enterprise's infrastructure could create serious security problems throughout the network.
To fully reap 5G's benefits, enterprises have to upgrade and replace network components with those designed with processors engineered to support the standard's higher speeds and performance metrics. Even as 5G-compatible equipment is available, enterprises still have to contend with ways to maximize their 5G investments when a sizable amount of their network infrastructure is wedded to legacy equipment. Price points are a critical consideration as carrier and equipment pricing remains in flux.
3. Uneven coverage
Carriers have accelerated their deployment of 5G, in part by acquiring spectrum that permits different transmission alternatives than millimeter wave (mmWave). Yet, many areas of the United States won't have true 5G coverage for years. Enterprises that have offices in rural locations may be particularly vulnerable to gaps in 5G coverage and have to rely on a mix of legacy connectivity technologies. As a result, companies that don't have access to 5G -- or those forced to wait for an extended period before carriers offer 5G service in their areas -- could suffer competitively.
4. Line of sight/penetration issues
Common objects can easily block the high-frequency signals of mmWave, so ensuring consistent coverage throughout office and factory settings can be an issue. As a result, enterprises may have to redesign some facilities to guarantee adequate service or use midband or low-band 5G flavors -- if they are available by carriers -- to extend coverage. Another option, primarily for private 5G networks, is Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum.
5. Hype factor
Claims from carriers and vendors -- among them how quickly users can download a movie on their mobile devices -- can overwhelm enterprises as they assess 5G's effects. Companies need to take the time to fully understand how they intend to use 5G to get the most benefit from the technology and how to justify the ROI required. 5G is unlike other technologies initially driven by enterprises and then adopted by consumers. In 5G's case, it's the other way around. Widespread enterprise adoption is muted until more 5G-compatible devices and mobile phones become commonplace, 5G-specific applications and services are developed, and true 5G connectivity is reliably and ubiquitously available.
Chuck Moozakis is editor at large of the Networking, Security and Infrastructure group at TechTarget.