The pros and cons of 5G networks

Enterprises are evaluating 5G and its effect on their operations. Before they can start reaping the benefits from the standard, they will have to carefully consider these 5G pros and cons.

It's hard to ignore the common message running through the blizzard of ads from AT&T, Verizon and other carriers: 5G deployment is under way. Although most of the focus today is on how 5G will transform consumer behavior -- "Download a movie in minutes!!!!!" -- its impact on enterprises will be multidimensional. Businesses will ultimately benefit from having faster wireless connectivity but not without hefty investments in Capex and in continuing operations. Here are 10 5G pros and cons enterprises will face as they prepare to adopt the 5G connectivity standard and its associated products and services.

5G pros

1. Speed

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 will be able to reach will depend upon a variety of factors, among them proximity to towers, the technological sophistication of the carrier itself and whether or not network components have been engineered to support multigigabit performance. That said, there is no question that 5G will enable enterprise use of services -- such as automation and advanced video conferencing capabilities -- that were unavailable with older standards. And not only does 5G offer higher speeds, but it offers something that is perhaps more important: low latency.

2. Low latency

5G significantly reduces the time it takes for network devices to respond to commands -- to less than 5 milliseconds, according to some trials. Apps and services will work identically, regardless of their location, eliminating the lag that can plague real-time communications.

3. Capacity

5G supports the simultaneous connection of many more devices than 4G -- up to 100 times more by some estimates. Enterprises, therefore, 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 will suffer or that mobile broadband accessibility will be limited, especially in high-congestion environments, such as Manhattan and other major urban areas.

4. New generation of AI- and machine learning-based services

5G will fuel the emergence of a new generation of interactive services based on AI and machine learning. Video conferencing that features augmented reality or virtual reality, for example, can simulate environments and help employees make better decisions about projects. Automation will enable enterprises to rely on applications and services that are more responsive and predictive than they are currently.

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5. Rethinking the network

5G will be the impetus leading companies to reimagine their networks. Branch offices could use 5G as their primary connectivity medium, relying on multiple carriers for internet service via SIM cards. Offices -- both centralized and remote -- could take advantage of additional automation and security capabilities. Edge computing will become more predominant, thanks to 5G-compatible components that can rapidly process and respond to requests, reducing the need for data center backhaul.

5G cons

1. Security

5G's transport security algorithms are more comprehensive than those supported by the 4G standard, but enterprises might encounter other cybersecurity issues. The sheer number of IoT devices and components attached to 5G networks will dramatically increase enterprise exposure to threats as attackers attempt to exploit vulnerabilities. The 5G devices themselves could also be cause for concern, as chips and other components engineered to drive those devices could be infected with malware by nation-state actors. Enterprises will also need to carefully weigh the use of network slicing -- a technique where a virtual network is created to carry a dedicated application or service -- with their 5G networks. A breach in any part of the carrier's infrastructure could create serious security problems throughout the network. Private 5G networks may be the best option for companies with a lower tolerance for risk.

2. Capex/Opex

To fully reap 5G's benefits, enterprises will have to upgrade and replace network components with those designed with processors engineered to support the standard's higher speeds and performance metrics. Vendors are expected to have 5G-compatible equipment available early next year, but enterprises will have to contend with ways to maximize their 5G investments when much of their network infrastructure remains wedded to legacy equipment. Price points will be a critical consideration as carrier and equipment pricing remains in flux.

3. Uneven coverage

Despite never-ending carrier dispatches about their 5G investments, many areas of the United States won't have 5G coverage for a long time. Enterprises that have offices in rural locations may be particularly vulnerable to gaps in 5G coverage and will 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

The high-frequency signals of 5G are more easily blocked by common objects, 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 construct supplementary radio spectrum networks -- such as those based on Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum -- that will let them extend coverage and capacity of their 5G networks.

5. The hype factor

Enterprises risk being overwhelmed by claims from carriers and vendors regarding how 5G will affect their operations. Companies will have to take the time to fully understand how they intend to exploit 5G to get the most benefit from the technology and how to justify the ROI required. 5G is unlike other technologies that were initially driven by enterprises and then adopted by consumers. In 5G's case, it's the other way around, and widespread enterprise adoption will be delayed until 5G-compatible devices become commonplace and true 5G service is delivered by the carriers. 5G relevancy won't occur until the standard is ubiquitous -- in coverage, price points and supported devices.

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This was last published in September 2020

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