During the past decade, technology has driven change across all aspects of society, especially business. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend, sparking tremendous increases in remote work and e-commerce and intensifying shifts in the way people communicate and consume media. The widespread adoption of digital tools and skills will provide greater flexibility and resilience to deal with future risks and uncertainties, according to the World Economic Forum 5G Outlook report, and 5G will play a critical role in enabling this. It will also create new opportunities for small and midsize businesses (SMBs).
“Redefining the customer and employee experience is of critical importance right now for businesses of all sizes,” says Wendy Taccetta, senior vice president for nationwide small business and channel chief at Verizon Business. “In fact, according to research we conducted earlier this year, nearly seven in 10 business owners believe that 5G will help their company overcome the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Among small business leaders polled by Verizon, 49% named 5G a top or important priority for their business.
A TECHNOLOGICAL LEAP
Cellular technology has steadily improved since Nippon Telegraph and Telephone introduced 1G service to Tokyo subscribers in 1979. As the technology spread worldwide, each evolutionary step from 1G to 4G LTE delivered greater capabilities and more business use cases for mobile connectivity. But the promise of 5G dwar fs ever y thing that has come before. “It’s not an understatement to say that 5G represents the biggest technological revolution since the introduction of the internet,” is how Todd Krautkremer, chief marketing officer at Cradlepoint puts it.
“5G is a big leap forward in cellular technology, promising, at its peak, several gigabits per second of speed,” says Swarun Kumar, director of the Emerging Wireless Technologies ( WiTech) Lab at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. “A key advantage of 5G is ultra-low latency, high scalability, and network efficiency.” The result is massively improved responsiveness and quality in data-heavy applications, such as video calls, conferencing, and streaming. “As 5G networks improve high-speed connectivity, small and midsize companies that utilize the advanced technology will be able to expand the reach of their businesses to connect with more consumers,” says Jefferson Wang, global 5G head at Accenture. 5G networks also expand a business’s technology capabilities, enabling edge computing and cloud services to efficiently distribute data storage, he adds. “That is particularly key for small and midsize businesses that do not have the cloud technology needed to improve their business process and customer experience.”
NEW WAYS TO DEFINE BUSINESS
5G, especially when integrated with Wi-Fi 6, promises new efficiencies, greater productivity, and new ways to define business. “The benefits apply across industries, and we see early opportunity in some first-mover industries like manufacturing, transportation and logistics, and venues and hospitality,” says Masum Mir, vice president and general manager of the cable and mobile business unit at Cisco.
One significant advantage Mir sees 5G providing to businesses is the integration or convergence of information technology (IT) systems with operational technology (OT) systems for improved efficiency. Cisco is already leveraging this capability in its newly redesigned workplace to improve safety and employee protection.
“When I walk in there with my laptop and phone, everything is connected over our IT network, so it knows where I am, who is in my proximity, whether we are maintaining proper social distancing,” Mir explains. “But it doesn’t stop there. Now it is also pulling even more information from IoT sensors and cameras—a network that has traditionally been part of the OT infrastructure—and getting a physical snapshot of the environment.”
5G also represents a lifeline for many SMBs struggling to compete in a rapidly changing workforce environment, Mir points out. “Unconnected small businesses will be able to get connected over a secure and ultra-fast wireless network, which will enable them to support hybrid work at scale without the burden of operational complexity,” he says.
FIBER-FAST, WIRELESS, SIMPLE
While 4G transformed the mobile experience by enabling the ever-growing universe of apps that consumers have come to rely on for everything from transportation to shopping to social connections, 5G takes things to the next level, Krautkremer says. “It will provide richer engagement and support a new generation of innovation with mobile applications that incorporate VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality). 5G is geared toward a business customer. It provides SMBs with a new option for internet connectivity that is fiber-fast, wireless, simple—and often cheaper than a conventional broadband connection.”
Discussions of 5G’s potential often focus on large-scale enterprises like smart cities, autonomous vehicles, and Industry 4.0 manufacturing and distribution. But David Lessin, director of network operations and research at ISG, sees immense potential for smaller businesses.
“SMBs have some advantages over large enterprises, including proximity to customer experience and constrained resources,” Lessin says. Proximity gives them a better understanding of their customer needs and wants, and constrained resources enable a very clear sense of what is affordable, so SMBs may have a better grasp of 5G’s full value equation. “While many understand that 5G is faster than prior mobile technologies, other advantages include significantly increased security, scalability, and significantly lower latency,” he says.
FASTER, CHEAPER, BETTER
Typically governed by tight budgetary controls, many SMBs are constantly looking for ways to lower operational expenditures. “As 5G offers increasing opportunities for them to automate and digitize their individual workflows, it can become an integral part of their cost-saving strategy,” says Leo Gergs, senior research analyst at ABI Research.
5G-enabled predictive maintenance can reduce unplanned machine downtown for manufacturers, thus minimizing revenue loss, Gergs notes. 5G can also help improve user experience, quality control, and worker productivity. “All of this can lift the respective enterprise’s reputation and therefore increase its market traction,” he says. “Furthermore, 5G allows enterprises to be much more mobile and design more flexible enterprise workflows.”
The U.S. is considered a global 5G leader because of its early launch and strong business environment, according to “The 5G Readiness Guide,” a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit. However, widespread commercial availability has been hampered by the slow build-out of base stations and needed improvements in network coverage and speeds. Fragmented oversight of spectrum policy is also an issue.
PLANNING FOR A 5G FUTURE
All those issues are being addressed, and the number of SMBs with access to 5G service is growing almost daily. “Much of the transition from 4G LTE to 5G will be automatic, with the network deciding when it is best to use 4G LTE versus 5G,” says George Holmes, CEO of Resonant. “This decision will depend upon the operational requirements of the applications being used and the status of the 5G network build-out.”
In the meantime, SMBs should focus on identifying how to take advantage of 5G to best address the needs of their business and its customers. “SMBs need to build out an actionable strategy, so that once the technology is available, their businesses and employees will be well-equipped to utilize 5G and reap the benefits of the advanced network,” Wang advises. “Advanced network connectivity will also drive the innovation of new products and services for customers, which will ultimately lead to the expansion of business, greater profitability, and long-term success.”