The 5 best 5G use cases
Use cases are integral elements in the development of 5G technology and the attendant 5G standards development process. Different use cases will have different network requirements – sometimes vastly different, so business plans and network upgrades must progress hand-in-hand. The number of possible use cases depends on who’s doing the counting and what they decide to count, but it ranges from as few as three very general categories to a dozen or more specific applications.
Everyone involved with 5G (service providers, technology enablers, customers) is making decisions about which use cases to pursue first, and what enabling technology is needed for those use cases – everything from semiconductors to network systems to software to end-user products. That makes it important to know which use cases might be worth pursuing, which ones are in fact being pursued, and who is pursuing them.
The ITU has developed a use case diagram; it’s a triangular map that assigns an application category to each corner (enhanced mobile, massive machine type communications, ultrareliable and low-latency applications) and then graphs specific applications (voice, smart cities, augmented reality, etc.) within the triangle based on the extent to which they share the characteristics of each category. There are multiple versions of the map, some more complex, some less so; the one reproduced here is from an ITU presentation from September 2016.
ADL has written a report called “5G deployment models are crystallizing” in which it makes the case that telcos need to find use cases now, if not to reap the benefits of being early to market then as a defensive measure. Where in the past only other telcos had the wherewithal to roll out a new generation of wireless technology, ADL points out that that’s no longer true. Non-telecom players are moving into the 5G space, including Google, Facebook, Apple, Hitachi, Scania, NEC, Ericsson, and Comau.
ADL has identified five practical use cases, some more aimed at establishing market leadership, others more evolutionary and representing placing a stake in the ground. They are, along with key proponents of each:
- Gigabit broadband to the home (Verizon)
- Next generation mobile user experience (T-Mobile)
- Future corporate networks (Vodafone)
- Digital industrial ecosystems (Korea Telecom)
- Infrastructure as a service
ADL says it is too early to discern which will be the prevailing models, but it believes that the most likely drivers of 5G in the near term will be delivering productivity to corporations and enabling new business models. Indeed, there are no examples yet of a couple of these approaches. They are use cases that ADL is recommending for consideration by telcos who have not yet chosen.
Gigabit broadband to the home
ADL sees 5G as complementary to fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) and cable-based broadband (aka DOCSIS) as a means to deliver streams rated at hundreds of megabits per second to gigabits per second. These faster rates are needed to deliver television at resolutions beyond 4K (6K, 8K, and possibly beyond), as well as both virtual and augmented reality. VR and AR applications will almost certainly include immersive sportscasts. French startup Devialet is producing a sound system to reproduce events from the Opera House in Paris and other venues; video is likely to be added, ADL noted.
Each specific application might require special network configuration. VR gaming, for example, might require game companies to integrate their core servers with network operators’ edge network servers to minimize latency, ADL notes.
Next-gen mobile user experience
5G could be used to simply provide better service, and charging people for higher tiers of service. Another possibility, though, is partnering with content providers to improve the partners’ services. ADL says this use case will depend on using low-band spectrum, a reference to T-Mobile, which recently bought rights to robust spectrum in the 600 MHz band covering much of the United States.
This approach will also require the operator to dynamically manage its network, according to ADL. That can be taken as a reference to software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV), trends affecting all forms of networking, though originally envisioned to help usher in 5G specifically.
Future corporate applications
ADL says several corporations are set to launch services on 5G networks, “leapfrogging 4G to take advantage of the inherent top 3 features of 5G namely: slicing, security and milli-second latency.” Slicing is the process of logically isolating network elements that otherwise would be used as shared resources.
The applications that require dedicated resources that ADL cites include mining, autonomous driving, and robotics. These types of applications will require that provider and customer work closely together on network definition and deployment.
Vodafone, for example, recently announced it would work with clients to develop specific solutions, based at least in part on 5G connectivity, for integrated supply chains, machine-to-machine environments, and various industrial applications. A specific example is Vodafone and Hitachi working together to build a rail analytics and operations management platform.
Digital industrial ecosystems
Corporate applications imply bespoke network configurations for specific customers. Digital industrial ecosystems imply network configurations that every participant in a particular industry can benefit from. These include agriculture, smart cities (including urban transport), and healthcare. This model, ADL explains, rests on operators providing neutral infrastructure, “at reasonable fees,” that scale with the growth of the ecosystems. The technological requirements include what ADL is calling ultrareliable, low-latency communications networks (URLLCs) that provide dedicated features necessary for specific use cases.
The model, ADL notes, is still unproven; there aren’t even any successful smart-city ecosystems just yet. A service will require a flagship tenant or tenants who will help attract more users. And the model doesn’t necessarily require 5G, ADL noted.
Examples of companies heading along this path include KT, which is trying to set up an ecosystem in support of the 2018 Olympics in Seoul, and Vodafone which working with several partners on a drone-as-a-service concept for agricultural use.
Next-gen infrastructure as a service
This approach, ADL explains, is for service providers that lack the resources to invest in nationwide 5G coverage, unless they enter agreements with development partners. The partners could be financing partners, local partners (municipalities or states), a rollout partner (construction companies for example), or an operating partner (a peer or even an erstwhile rival).
There are no examples of this strategy in action yet, ADL said, but the authors note that the city of Espoo in Finland is working with Nokia Bell Labs, Spinverse, and eleven other partners are working on a smart city initiative, while the city of Dusseldorf in Germany is working on a similar project with Vodafone.
“Telecom operators are approaching crossroads at which they must decide when and how to prepare for 5G deployment in a manner that will best suit their current market positions and future market needs,” the ADL report reads. The five models should be considered to be starting points only. Each carrier ought to mix and match these models and others, as makes the most sense for that carrier.
Brian Santo has been writing about science and technology for over 30 years, covering cable networks, broadband, wireless, the Internet of things, T&M, semiconductors, consumer electronics, and more.
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