While the EU has some notable infrastructure projects to its name, an area it hasn’t made much progress in is broadband. Economic and logistical difficulties mean speed and reliability vary dramatically across the region; Scandinavia is well catered for, but the bloc’s leading economies are lagging behind. All of this threatens to cause growth to stutter, and concentrate even more businesses around capitals like London, Berlin and Paris.
With roadblocks aplenty for cable internet, many eyes have turned to mobile. 4G has enabled phones to send and receive high res photos and videos, but after just a few years it’s already being outpaced. Technologies like 4K video, Virtual Reality and the Internet of Things are all sat in the wings, waiting for wireless connections that are faster and more stable.
The arrival of 5G wireless internet aims to fix this. Arriving en masse as soon as 2019, this latest development could go beyond consumer goods to fundamentally changing our national infrastructure, and the way we communicate with one another. Here are a few ways in which ultrafast mobile internet can open up new business opportunities, and enable small businesses to thrive wherever they’re located.
It can replace static phone lines
While average internet speeds in the UK, France and Germany – Europe’s three leading economies – are hardly the worst in the world, they still lag far behind other advanced economies. Speeds range from a dismal low of 10.8 Mbps in France to 16.9 Mbps in the UK. South Korea continues to lead the way globally with average speeds of 28.6 Mbps, no doubt assisting its thriving tech and manufacturing sector.
This is in part a logistical and historical problem: the narrow, winding city streets and thousands of country villages in Europe make roadworks difficult and expensive. Relative monopolies such as BT in the UK – whose ‘Openreach’ infrastructure project has just been divested from the business, following complaints from rivals – compound this issue.
Despite the best efforts of governments and regulators, there is less of a business imperative to connect small communities, or indeed some businesses. While consumers consume huge amounts of data now, businesses were traditionally the least likely to see broadband upgrades, as they use their connections more heavily during the day. This has led to a huge disparity in connections even within a cable connected town, with neighbouring streets stuck with ADSL.
The great benefit of ultrafast mobile internet is that coverage is easier to achieve. While the land for masts still needs to be purchased and built on, this is far less hassle than digging up every residential road in a given area. This could mean that ultrafast 5G reaches more isolated areas before fibre cable connections, and with even faster speeds.
Lab tests have shown that it has the potential to transfer information as fast as 1 Gigabyte per second. Given that companies are increasingly relying on cloud storage and video conferencing, this would be a huge leveller.
It’s extremely reliable
Mobile internet has been fast enough to cater to most day-to-day tasks for a while now, with speeds capable of sending documents and downloading design files in seconds. Indeed, European nations lead the world in some aspects of mobile infrastructure, with the UK top for average speeds, and Germany top for peak speeds according to Akamai. The problem under pressure has been twofold: reliability and coverage.
To be relied upon for business use, mobile internet has to be available to the same standard across entire regions and countries. But because phone masts only distribute signals from a limited number of operators, every competing service in these countries has blind spots.
You can easily go from 4G to 1G within a minute of train travel, and both speeds and coverage tend to dip dramatically the further you move from a town or city centre.
The good news with 5G is that there’s an imperative for it to be both reliable and widespread. One of the driving factors behind the move to 5G (coming so soon after 4G) is the need to support driverless cars and similar networked technologies. The latency of 4G – in other words, the time between sending data to the mast and receiving a response – is simply too slow to allow this tech to function.
5G, on the other hand, is being built for ultra low latency as well as speed, with response times as fast as 1 millisecond. This will require both more masts and the use of multiple antennae, to hone in more accurately on a device’s location. The need to ensure complete coverage – and thereby complete safety – should mean that 5G reaches every corner of any country that takes driverless cars seriously.
It could democratise the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) involves connecting ‘dumb’ devices (such as lights or thermostats) to a network, where they can receive and report actions remotely. This technology is currently being deployed en masse by large businesses, where Facilities Managers and Data Analysts use the sensor data to monitor usage and automate certain processes. But these deployments often use expensive, proprietary software and wireless base stations, all of which is beyond the reach of small businesses looking to benefit from the IoT.
5G networks would be able to support hundreds of thousands of devices, a vast improvement on current technology. Rather than relying on wifi, devices could be bundled with ‘direct to cloud’ 5G antennae, automatically linking themselves to the phone network and storing their data online. This would make them less prone to being hacked, as well as reducing the need for setup and technical support, opening the technology up to less tech-savvy small businesses.
As well as regulating energy consumption, sensors allow you to collect usage data, which can be analysed to identify further efficiency savings, as well as spotting issues ahead of time.
Car sensors for example, could allow for fleets of vehicles to improve their fuel efficiency, by automatically stopping and starting the engine at the correct times. Logging usage patterns meanwhile could automatically prioritise or delay maintenance, saving your business money.
Smart building technology meanwhile, such as temperature sensors or room monitoring systems, could make your business more efficient by automating processes like stock management.
This is much the same principle as a ‘smart fridge’ that orders milk when you’ve run out. Sensors could automatically adjust stock numbers as you remove items from shelves and order stock when a shelf is empty, removing the need for manual administration.
What 5G represents is not just an incremental step up to keep case with technology, but a revolutionary moment. It will be the first time mobile networks are designed to support more than just phones, bearing some of the burden of broadband networks. Businesses who manage to keep their finger on the pulse, either adopting 5G or pursuing the opportunities it creates, could be in for a substantial windfall.