Gadget fiends and streaming freaks are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the newest wireless networks. But businesses may have the most to gain over the long run.
Next-generation wireless technology called 5G, which is just starting to roll out in Chicago, promises to deliver dramatically larger amounts of data faster and more reliably than existing networks. Commercial and industrial buildings could get data speeds currently available only from dedicated high-speed fiber-optic lines. Long term, 5G will provide the backbone that makes autonomous driving, blockchain and telemedicine possible.
“4G was all about consumers and streaming—YouTube, Netflix,” says Matt Preyss, a product marketing manager for Here, formerly called Navteq, which already is building high-definition mapping software that ultimately will be used for autonomous vehicles. “What 5G will enable is machine-to-machine communications. That’s huge.”
Chicago is one of the first U.S. markets to get 5G. But it will take time—likely several years—before coverage is widespread enough to be really useful. Some companies started planning for its arrival a couple of years ago, says Joseph Doering, who leads Accenture’s communications, media and telecom practice in the Midwest. “You won’t see the products right away,” he says, but “they’re further along the investment timeline than people might be thinking.”
Experts see transformative possibilities in industries ranging from gaming and entertainment to any business with a supply chain. Industrial equipment manufacturers already are looking at how to incorporate 5G connectivity into their products.
“In terms of data, it’s gigabytes versus megabytes. And the time it takes for a device to talk to the network is milliseconds versus tenths of a second or even seconds that we have now,” Doering says. “It’s going to be one of the most disruptive technologies we’ve seen.”
As with most new technologies, however, the early hype vastly exceeds reality. Verizon launched limited 5G phone service in small parts of neighborhoods downtown last month. AT&T and Sprint are expected to start service in Chicago this year. Samsung’s first 5G-capable smartphones hit Verizon stores May 16.
One of the more likely uses of 5G is to provide broadband service to buildings. “Fiber is expensive and limited,” says Heather Zheng, a computer science professor and telecom expert at the University of Chicago. “(5G) will make broadband in buildings faster, better and cheaper. It’s an advantage for high-rises. It could be great for sports stadiums.”
SPEED AND SAVINGS
Rush University Medical Center is partnering with AT&T to provide 5G across its West Side campus. Doctors rely on bandwidth-hogging digital files for MRIs and other tests, which require reliable high-speed networks. Rush will save $5 million by using 5G instead of fiber in one building, says Dr. Shafiq Rab, the hospital’s chief information officer. Rush also will use 5G for video-enabled telemedicine. “Our plan is to do hospital at home for things like simple pneumonia,” he says. “Patients will feel safer at home and cost goes down.”
The internet of things, whether it entails putting sensors on shipping containers or factory machines, will become more efficient and powerful with 5G connectivity. “It’s likely to drive down the cost per gigabyte,” says Larry Jordan, president of Wi-Tronix, a data-analytics company in Bolingbrook that serves rail and other industries. “That’s likely to open the door to things that are possible but not cost-effective with 4G.”
At Ace Hardware in Oak Brook, senior procurement manager Fraz Baig says, “Something you could potentially do with 5G that you can’t do now is hold the camera on your phone below a sink and quickly pull up the list of plumbing parts required to connect your sink to your drain, see the inventory at your neighborhood hardware store, which can be delivered to you fast enough to complete a project.”
Turning 5G’s promise into reality requires a massive network buildout. 5G networks need about five times as much equipment as existing wireless networks, estimates Gordon Reichard, CEO of Isco International, a Schaumburg-based software provider for wireless carriers. The 5G equipment has much smaller coverage—150 to 300 yards, compared to 1,000 yards for 4G infrastructure mounted on tall towers. Smaller and less expensive, 5G gear is placed closer to the ground on existing poles used for electrical wires, streetlights or traffic signals.
Reichard says carriers are spending twice as fast as they did for the 4G rollout, which started in 2009. Chicago issued 805 permits to install equipment on city-owned poles and infrastructure in the past three years, compared with 91 in the previous nine years.
Crown Castle, which installs equipment and leases it to various carriers, received more than half the permits issued by the city since 2016. It has installed 1,000 of 4,000 planned equipment sites. To connect them all, Crown Castle is more than doubling its fiber network in Chicago, adding 300 route miles. “The numbers of (city permits) will continue to ramp up in 2019,” says Mike Smith, a vice president at Houston-based Crown Castle. “It’s hard to drive a block in Chicago without seeing a small-cell node. In the future, you’ll see even more.”