Herald of the 4th Industrial Revolution? The potential of 5G.

By Sam Bowers

5G networks have most notably occupied both print and the public imagination as a result of the controversy surrounding the involvement of Chinese technology MNC Huawei in the construction of 5G infrastructure. As a result of Western fears for digital security, the UK (among a host of other countries)  have followed in the footsteps of the US in implementing bans on the involvement of Huawei in their 5G projects. Whilst this controversy may be a fascinating component of mounting international tensions, why should we be bothered by this obstacle to the implementation of 5G in the UK and across Europe?

From a consumer perspective, the case is as simple as faster internet connection, with 5G offering 10-20 times the speed of 4G networks. 5G networks will reportedly allow users with 5G-compatible devices to download a HD movie in a rapid 25 seconds, whilst also reducing losses of signal and improving latency (the time it takes between you clicking and your device doing), good news for both gamers and those who enjoy al fresco video calls. However, the benefit you will see from the growth of 5G will be impacted by the infrastructure used by your carrier, and unfortunately the technology is unlikely to drastically improve internet speeds in rural areas.

More pressing though, is the industrial potential of 5G, a technology which has the potential to breathe life into a host of technological innovations. European industrialists have spoken out against hesitance to implement the technology, suggesting that failure to adopt 5G will lead to the economic region becoming unable to compete with the likes of the US, South Korea and, most notably, China.

But are these claims justified? EY have identified varying receptions to the adoption of 5G across a variety of industries, with manufacturing appearing the most interested and the government/public sector the least. The ‘Big 4’ consulting firm stresses though, particularly in the era of the COVID pandemic, that innovations such as the exploration of 5G technologies will be essential for the survival of businesses of all sizes.

Particular excitement has gathered around the potential for so-called ‘smart factories’. The vision can be summarized as follows: that use of data in conjunction with artificial intelligence can provide automated responses in factories to market trends or potential issues in supply lines for example. Ericsson’s USA 5G Smart Factory is amongst the advanced guard of fully-automated manufacturing plants, producing the physical infrastructure necessary to broaden the use of 5G technology. This factory boasts a variety of impressive features including drones for inspection of the manufacturing process and a variety of self-adjusting sensors to monitor the environmental impact of the factory’s operation, features naturally made possible by the 5G networks which Ericsson themselves provide. PwC (https://www.pwc.co.uk/services/economics/insights/the-impact-of-automation-on-jobs.html) estimates that such automation and use of artificial intelligence, the capabilities of which are drastically enhanced by 5G, has the potential to boost the global GDP by an astonishing $15tn before 2030.

The industrial potential of 5G is clearly very real and is already being explored by a handful of firms at the eye of this storm. However, increasing automation does come at a price: the redundancy of a variety of jobs. Whilst in the short term, through the early 2020s, it is estimated that 3% of jobs are at risk of automation, predictions see this figure leap to 30% by the mid-2030s. However, the symbiotic development of 5G, AI and automation will place STEM skills on an employability pedestal, with vacancies in high technology only set to increase.

Beyond improving the ease of digital consumption, it is clear that 5G, for better or for worse, does truly have the potential to change the face of the global economy, perhaps in ways which nobody has yet anticipated. Whilst interest and ultimately investment in the technology is gathering momentum, the controversy over the delivery of 5G in much of the West only delays its implementation. One feels that to not embrace this innovation could prove costly for the international competitiveness of those countries slow off the mark.

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