5G is the fifth generation of mobile networks. It follows on from 3G and 4G technology, and is expected to create new opportunities for individuals and businesses alike.
The first 5G network was launched in the UK in May 2019 by EE, and the roll-out will be staggered over the coming months, although coverage will likely be limited to the most highly populated areas in cities, including London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
Whilst much of the talk around 5G has been marketed on the speed of the network, this technology is about much more than fast downloads. The power of 5G will enable a huge leap forward in connectivity, and it will also have a greater capacity than the previous networks, which means it will be better at handling multiple high-demand applications at the same time. By being able to cope with more people on the network, it will give users a fibre-like experience and has the potential of replacing existing broadband in the future.
5G will underpin new modes of transport, make video more important than ever before and create a boom in the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT broadly refers to everything connected to the Internet, but is increasingly used to define objects or devices that ‘talk’ to each other. This includes examples such as lightbulbs responding to darkness, and fridges adding groceries to your shopping list as you run out. Industries such as manufacturing are already benefitting from the IoT by being able to optimise supply chains through inventory tracking, and improve efficiencies by identifying bottlenecks and problems in production lines.
5G technology is also set to revolutionise the healthcare sector, and over the last couple of years, the NHS has taken initiatives to welcome the technology. For instance, in a 5G enabled ambulance, paramedics would be able to share critical patient data with A&E staff in real time whilst travelling to hospital, speeding up the triage process, and high quality video streaming could enable A&E staff to begin diagnosis as early as possible. In Scotland, the Caithness General Hospital in Wick has run a trial on IoT technology which ensures that hospital beds operate effectively and are safe to the patient and, furthermore, NHS England has made a glucose monitoring device available on prescription to diabetes patients.
However, arguably, the benefits of 5G are most likely to be felt in rural areas, and the 5G RuralFirst project is creating rural test-beds and trials for 5G wireless and mobile connectivity across three main sites in the Orkney Islands, Shropshire and Somerset. In the Orkney Islands, a range of possible uses have been trialled, including maintaining Wi-Fi on an inter-island ferry, helping to manage numbers at tourist hotspots, protecting the health of children, and monitoring salmon in a fish farm and turbines on a wind farm. Ekosgen has carried out extensive work across the Highlands and Islands (including carrying out research into how to maximise the opportunities for young people in the region, and evaluating the support delivered by Highlands and Islands Enterprise to the development of tourism destinations) and earlier this year developed a Skills Action Plan for rural Scotland. Rural areas of Scotland have mixed economies in terms of the types of businesses, industries and sectors that operate in them. This includes businesses operating in significant growth sectors (such as life sciences, finance and business services, and sustainable tourism) as well as some very innovative organisations utilising cutting edge technologies in sectors including textiles, life sciences and marine biotechnology. However, the Skills Action Plan found that poor digital connectivity was a major issue not only for individuals, but also for businesses in rural communities, preventing them from communicating effectively with their markets, putting them at a competitive disadvantage and inhibiting economic growth. 5G technology has the potential to support the attractiveness of rural areas to individuals and businesses alike, and to sustain communities in the most remote locations.
As evident in the above, the introduction of 5G has the potential of influencing and benefitting businesses across sectors greatly. New markets may be created, costs could be lowered and the structure of labour markets could be changed significantly.
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