Faster data and reduced latency. These are the things we know to expect when 5G wireless technology starts rolling out over the first half of the next decade. But just how fast? And how transformative will it be? Few people know better than David Ward, CTO of engineering and chief architect at Cisco, where he oversees the company’s many innovation programs, from open-source strategies to academic research projects. Here, Ward reveals the potential capabilities of 5G and the impact it will have on business. (Spoiler alert: a very significant one.)
Can you explain, in basic terms, how 5G improves upon 4G?
5G uses millimeter waves, which typically have higher channel bandwidths, and so can carry a lot more data bits. And by using special antenna arrays—with a relatively small profile—we now have the ability to dynamically focus bandwidth, or “beamform,” on specific users, creating “beams” about the thickness of a pencil. This capability alone is a game changer. And it really should be emphasized that, while previous generations—that is, 2G through 4G—were about the consumer, 5G is about business to business.
How will enterprise customers benefit from 5G’s ultralow latency?
A lot will depend on network architecture and edge computing. Much of this does not exist today, but I can share some scenarios. A hospital will be able to aggregate the sensors and monitors for every patient and connect all of that to form a real- time data center-and, thanks to guaranteed low latency, a patient recovering at home could be connected to this center reliably.
On 4G, usable bandwidth is capped at 10,000 devices per square kilometer. With 5G, the capacity is much higher. What will this expanded connectivity mean for businesses?
This will transform how wireless is done indoors, where most business—from manufacturing to retail—takes place. Indoor cell coverage can be very spotty. We’re going to really improve upon that by integrating Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, indoor cell, and adding beamforming 5G access points. And by managing the spectrum—and the greatly increased density—with much greater efficiency and cost savings, we get better coverage and capacity indoors. Circling back to B2B, we’re seeing other countries, like Germany, set aside part of the spectrum specifically for industrial use. With its high density and low latency, 5G could have a tremendous impact on IoT.
It sounds like many use cases for 5G have yet to even be imagined.
That is true. Important components like application architecture and edge-computing technologies do not exist ubiquitously today. Take autonomous vehicles. At some point, it seems we’ll probably need a single-millisecond—or sub-millisecond-latency device or service—but we haven’t seen it yet. Think of 5G as a killer app for uses that don’t yet exist.
In what ways is Cisco poised to help business adopt this new technology?
One big way is through heterogeneous networking—what we call HetNet. This allows us to manage and operate across indoor spectra—including Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, existing cell, as well as 5G—for an invisible and seamless end-user interaction. We’re also working on improving roaming technologies that will enable users to get on Wi-Fi or Ethernet or cellular without having to enter new passwords. As a value proposition, we can pass on cost reductions due to our efforts in internet architecture and how we deploy different services across different access technologies. Our goal at Cisco is: If you want to attach it to the internet, we’re going to make it as easy as possible.