I walked into the Verizon 5G Lab in Lower Manhattan feeling skeptical.

I was slated to speak on a panel called “Built on 5G: Creating a Platform for Urban Innovation and Transformation,” but in my opinion, the title needed a question mark at the end.

Yes, I was confident 5G would enable faster robots on the factory floor and more precise surgical equipment. But in terms of other application areas, I wasn’t sure 5G was a technology the world needed.

However, during the panel Joshua Ness, Senior Director of Verizon 5G Labs, offered an insightful counterpoint. When telecoms introduced mobile data with 3G in 1998, did we imagine we would navigate almost anywhere from our phone with Google Maps?

He insisted the most impactful 5G applications have yet to be invented.

Timeline of mobile technologies
Image courtesy of techtalk.info.

5G Opportunities for the Taking

5G will spur growth in both the number and sophistication of IoT devices.

It makes it possible to have 1 million IoT devices clustered in a square kilometer communicate seamlessly.

In a crowded city with smart lights, traffic signals, autonomous vehicles, smartphones, and hundreds of other types of IoT devices, the high area traffic capacity that 5G delivers is a must.

Additionally, we’ll need to develop new technologies to manage the complexity of 5G itself.

Imagine the increased complexity of managing more than three times as many cell towers, low, middle, and high radio frequency bands, and connections across multiple variations of mobile technology standards.

If you’re up for the challenge of determining how 5G will shape the future, here’s a primer on how to get started.

What is 5G?

The simplest definition for 5G is it is the fifth generation of mobile technologies.

We will have to wait until 2020 to see the actual standards of 5G, also known as IMT-2020. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations specialized agency that creates the standards, is still finalizing the details. (Side note: the ITU has facilitated international connectivity in communication networks since 1865!)

Telecoms and chip makers already working from a draft of the standards that was released in mid-2017. Samsung’s testing certainly has a dramatic flair.

Samsung 5G mmWave Mobility Test.

There are equally dramatic differences between the draft IMT-2020 standards and 4G standards, also known as IMT-Advanced. ITU created IMT-2020 specifically with IoT applications in mind.

I created a comparison chart that highlights some of the key improvements.

4G 5G
Peak data rate (Gbps) 0.6, Downlink
0.27, Uplink
20, Downlink
10, Uplink
Area Traffic Capacity (Mbps/m2) Undefined 10
Latency: User plane (ms) 10 4
Latency: Control plane (ms) 100 20
Connection density (Device/km2) Undefined 1,000,000
Bandwidth (MHz) 40 100+

In short, 5G is the fifth generation of mobile technologies specially designed for a future where much in the physical world is connected to the internet.

How can I start developing 5G solutions now?

Step 1: Identify a Problem

robots in a factory

If you want to start developing 5G solutions, first you need to identify a problem to solve. Let’s look at some examples of popular 5G application areas.

One common application of 5G is making robots less expensive and more responsive. An interesting example comes from Southie Autonomy, a robotics startup based in Boston, USA, and the winner of the 2018 Verizon 5G Robotics Challenge. In an interview with Chris Ashraf and Jay Wong, co-founders of Southie Autonomy described how 5G powers Southie’s AI. “With 5G, we can move these computationally heavy things over to the cloud and offload about 400% of CPU so we can do these complex actions at a much lower cost and without a lot of extra hardware…5G’s low latency is also key when you need to train robots in near real time to do precise automated task.”

New AR/VR experiences to better connect people and entertain them are also a high potential area. Back in 2018, South Korea touted the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics as the first “5G Olympics.” Reuters reported that more truthfully, there were only a scattering of VR headsets still using 4G.

At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, we can expect to see smart stadiums powered by 5G. In August of this year, China Unicom, a Chinese telecom, and the Beijing State-owned Asset Management Co. announced their partnership to offer attendees a new experience at the Olympic Games. Pandaily summarized some of the ideas floated at the launch event, “360-degree panoramic real time broadcast, VR immersive experience of match viewing and smart medical treatments will also be applied. ”

I will not be first in line for the smart medical treatments, but the ability to watch athletes from all angles in real time would be a game changer.

Step 2: Build a Prototype

As of right now, there are not many easily accessible 5G development kits for prototyping.

In the meantime, I recommend you use a board with a LTE CAT M1 chip. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) designed the LTE CAT-M1 standards to better suit IoT applications, and emulate some of the improvement 5G will offer: lower power, latency, range and cost compared to existing 4G standards. If you are hungry for more details at LTE CAT-M1, Link Labs has a nice summary.

Pycom GPy board
Pycom GPy board

The Pycom GPy is an IoT development board with LTE CAT M1/NB1, WiFi, BLE and an ESP32 SoC. Here is a look at how you can use the Pycom GPy and Kosmos by Temboo to prototype your 5G product or service.

Step 3: Find a Partner for a 5G Pilot Project

Once you have a prototype, find a partner who can help you access a 5G network to test your ideas. Speedtest maintains the best available map of 5G rollouts, although it’s not fully comprehensive. If you do not see your location represented on Speedtests’ map, I recommend you do a quick search to see if and when 5G will be available in your area.

5G map
Screenshot of Speedtest’s 5G map

Many telecom companies and governments are offering grant funding to help launch new 5G applications. The grants typically include access to an existing 5G test bed they operate, so that’s another great way to access a 5G network.

I’m fond of a project in the Orkney Islands off the Scotland titled “Tapestry.” Underneath the umbrella of the UK’s 5G RuralFirst testbed, a composer planted remote, 5G-enabled microphones around Orkney and invited other residents to submit sounds. You can listen to the “sonic portrait of Orkney” here. I think this project is remarkable for its creativity and location. Historically, rural areas are the last to get upgraded telecom networks.

The demand for impactful 5G applications is high. If you have a great idea, now is the time to connect with organizations who can help you test and refine it. Here is a list of 5G competitions and hackathons that are still accepting applications:

The More 5G Innovators, the Better

When I spoke on a panel at Verizon 5G Labs this month, I raised the question of whether 5G will create a better future.

My answer is that yes, it can, if everyone is empowered to develop 5G applications. 5G is not a solution to the digital divide created by existing telecommunications infrastructure. Nor will it resolve the sense of increased social isolation driven by our internet-connected world.

Whether 5G will be a force for more good than harm is up to all of us. Temboo’s mission is to empower more people and organizations to build physical computing systems at the intersection of hardware, software, and human aspiration. We’re excited to help our community of innovators from around the world shape the future of 5G and IoT.

Get in touch at hey@temboo.com for support building your 5G product or service that will make a positive impact.

Subscribe to Temboo’s newsletter

* indicates required
Posted by:Sarah McMillian, Product Outreach

Sarah is on the Product Outreach team at Temboo. Using her background in mechanical engineering, she helps manufacturers and other types of businesses do more with IoT. Sarah keeps podcasts on tech + society in heavy rotation, and has worked in four continents.