Chevron Corp. disclosed plans in September to add predictive maintenance in its oil fields and refineries by arming thousands of pieces of equipment with sensors by 2024 that will predict when equipment in the field will need to be serviced.
The forward-looking move comes as sensors become less expensive, the Internet of Things continues to connect devices wirelessly to cloud-based platforms that can quickly analyze data, and as predictive analytics promises to create competitive advantage.
But when it comes to Chevron’s plans for upgrading to fifth-generation or 5G networking, which has the potential to move the equipment’s data exponentially faster, with lower latency, and the bandwidth to connect a million devices per square kilometer vs. 4G’s roughly 1,000 devices per kilometer — Chevron is curious, but not ready to commit just yet.
“Chevron is always investigating new technologies, including 5G, but our current needs are fully met with 4G and other networking technologies,” said a Chevron spokesperson for its technology and midstream groups. “As 5G networking matures and comes down in cost, we will consider it for areas that require 5G capabilities.”
It’s a familiar refrain from many companies that don’t know much about 5G or what it will be able to do for the enterprise. When wireless technology provider Ericsson asked 1,000 C-level executives in 10 industries about barriers to adopting 5G in late 2017, 62 percent cited that it was “too soon to know what the real benefits will be.” Other top concerns included data security and privacy, lack of standards and the challenges of end-to-end integration.
Those sentiments haven’t changed much almost a year later, except that product standards that allow manufacturers to start developing compatible handsets, chip sets and networking equipment were finalized in December 2017 and June 2018.
There’s plenty of hype around 5G and its promise to revolutionize driverless cars, virtual reality and entertainment, but what’s less clear is how it will enable business-transforming innovation for the typical enterprise.
So far, 5G providers have been touting trials that prove the technology’s performance, such as AT&T’s first data transfer over millimeter wave using standards-based, production equipment in September, and Verizon’s breakthrough with Nokia handing off a signal seamlessly to a vehicle traveling between two radio sectors in August. They remain tight-lipped, however, about trials they’re working on with enterprise customers that could demonstrate 5G’s benefits for enterprises. Instead, many wireless providers are looking for enterprises to come to them with their wireless wish lists and pain points, so that they can develop tailored 5G use cases.
Will 5G really be a game-changer for enterprises, and if so, when? Networking analysts, consultants and wireless providers lay out the facts about 5G today, and they offer advice on what enterprises should do to prepare.
5G today: What to expect
Verizon and AT&T have announced plans to roll out 5G in 16 cities, collectively, by year’s end, but those rollouts come with caveats. AT&T will initially offer 5G hotspots or “pucks,” in 12 cities, but only in parts of the cities with the highest network demand and coverage needs. Pucks will also be available for consumers to purchase in stores by year’s end.
AT&T’s rollout cities include Houston, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, and San Antonio, Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, and Waco, Texas.
Verizon will offer fixed wireless 5G by year’s end in four cities, Los Angeles, Houston, Sacramento and Indianapolis, but only in homes. The company has not announced a timeline for mobile 5G availability.
When it comes to mobility, compatible mobile phones and other wireless devices that can take full advantage of 5G are not yet available for sale. Specification standards for chip sets and devices were finalized in June, and vendors like Qualcomm, Intel and LSI are still coding and developing software for infrastructure network equipment. A normal cycle from standards approval to device completion is about 12 months, says Ed Chan, Verizon senior VP and chief technical architect.
“Early deployments are going to be 5G in name, but they’re still going to rely on 4G LTE back-end network architecture,” says Jason Leigh, senior research analyst at IDC. “The full end-to-end 5G communications and networking probably won’t hit the market until 2020.” That will be the key to real enterprise use, he adds. “For things like network slicing,” where 5G is deployed only to a part of the network for a particular application, “you have to do that on the network management side, so realizing that part of 5G will be in the post-2020 era.”
How 5G might reshape enterprise operations
Enterprises located in one of the first 16 rollout cities may be able to benefit from the speed and availability of 5G in the new year.
“Retailers, for example, could use 5G services in areas where it’s been launched to seamlessly pop up stores,” says Gordon Mansfield, AT&T’s vice president of converged access & device technology. “All the connectivity that you typically only have in brick and mortar is now available from a mobile perspective,” he says. Smart cities that have video cameras in place for security monitoring could take advantage of 5G’s low latency in coverage areas to speed video transmission and analysis of activities on city streets, he adds.
As commercial 5G networks and devices becomes available, developers expect more widespread use for everything from factory automation, to monitoring and tracking farm equipment to remote-controlled machinery in mines. Verizon is working with healthcare organizations to explore 5G’s benefits for remote care, and it’s looking into how 5G could help manage import/export containers at sea ports. Accenture is exploring how 5G can enhance training programs using virtual reality and augmented reality in aeronautics, next-generation factories and equipment manufacturers.
Overall, industries with fewer regulations will have faster entry into 5G than heavily regulated sectors, says Jefferson Wang, managing director of communications, media and technology, at Accenture Strategy. For carriers and network providers, understanding the complexity of each vertical market’s wireless and networking requirements will be important, he says. “Solving problems for healthcare is a much different solution than solving for transportation logistics. We have to build the ecosystems, create agility and understand the right business models to make this work.”
Accenture launched 5G Acceleration Services in September to help communications service providers, network operators, device manufacturers and non-traditional mobile network operators develop use cases, devices and network deployment approaches for specific industries.
For that reason, wireless providers right now are relying on guidance from enterprises themselves — through confidential trials or innovation storefronts. Verizon opened a 5G-enabled lab in New York’s Silicon Alley in December where startups and academics uncover new use cases and prototypes. Verizon also invited enterprises to come in and play with 5G applications.
What will 5G cost?
No one is talking price yet, but rather in network currencies that will vary by industry, such as peak data rates, the user experience data rates, latency that can be changed drastically, speed, density of the network and battery life. Providers “have to be flexible enough to support a customer paying for latency or paying for a million connections on one account,” Wang says.
Meanwhile, there are steps enterprises can take now to prepare for 5G’s arrival.
Companies that are contemplating 5G should first examine their organization’s mission and goals, experts say. “Start thinking, what if you’re not tethered down by all the wires as you automate a process? What would you do with that? That’s where we’re having a lot of conversations with enterprises today,” Chan says.
“They really should start to build an understanding of what 5G enables,” Mansfield says. “People often think about the bandwidth available, but it’s also about the latency.” Next, companies should engage in discussions with providers on how they can deliver those capabilities, he says.
“When you understand your strengths, then we can determine where you want to be in 5G,” Wang says. A 5G plan should include near-term, mid-term, long-term development goals as new use cases are discovered and devices and equipment become available, he adds.
“We see 2019 as a year when the industry will really come together with a robust ecosystem, pairing up the right vertical, with the right network operator with the right equipment provider, and the right guidance,” Wang says, where a wait-and-see attitude will evolve into real enterprise partnerships.
4G vs. 5G: HOW IT WORKS
Current networks use low- and medium-band spectrum that can travel long distances and penetrate buildings. 5G networks will also use millimeter-wave spectrum that can carry huge amounts of data but don’t travel far, so network builders need to place many small cells close together to use this spectrum.
5G networks will include all of these spectrums and a mix of traditional cell-phone towers and antennas on rooftops that carry signals over long distances, plus a series of small cells at lower heights for shorter distances. That combination, along with advances in radio technology, will help carriers reduce latency and support billions of devices and high-speed data.