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Despite considerable hype, 5G connectivity likely won't have a big impact on the enterprise this year.
Although several 5G-ready, enterprise-focused devices were announced recently, including the Dell Latitude 9510 and the 2020 HP Elite Dragonfly G2 model, analysts said the fifth generation cellular network technology itself is not enterprise-ready.
This slower rollout may be to the benefit of IT professionals, however. With 5G connectivity looming on the horizon, experts said, there is an opportunity for IT admins to contribute to strategic plans for how the technology will be implemented when it does arrive.
Bill Menezes, senior principal analyst at Gartner, said the expansion of nationwide cellular and data 5G networks is still a work in progress. Such networks, he said, have been built out in some smaller countries like South Korea, where there is limited landmass to cover and a regulatory impetus to upgrade. In the U.S. and Europe, the networks have grown, but coverage is not as ubiquitous as it needs to be for businesses to rely on it.
Device support is another limiting factor. Menezes said iOS has the dominant share of mobile devices in the business world; until an iPad or iPhone supports the technology, organizations using iOS will be without a 5G connectivity option. With 5G-capable laptops, he said, IT should weigh the benefit of having the technology available on those relatively long-lived devices against whether their employees would see any short-term gains through it.
Holger Mueller, principal analyst at Constellation Research Inc., said he did not expect much of a 5G effect on the enterprise in 2020.
"The only impact [this year] is that customers will have to shell out more money for an iPhone, if an iPhone comes out that supports 5G," he said.
The technology has the potential to bring about some fundamental changes, whether it involves controlling thousands of devices on the factory floor or guiding self-driving cars, but substantial work must take place before that occurs, according to Mueller. He anticipates that the rollout will be slower than the upgrade from 3G to 4G, and the early benefits will be seen in the more densely populated areas rather than nationwide.
While 4G relied on cell towers covering a wide radius, 5G is expected to use a larger number of smaller stations, as the millimeter wave spectrum upon which it operates only works over short distances. Mueller said a substantial amount of buildout must take place before the service is available across the country.
Forrester Research analyst Dan Bieler described 2020 as the early days of 5G; IT, at this point, may be just starting to think about the technology and the impact it could have on operations.
"5G is one of the technologies they need to keep an eye on, in terms of the use cases they need to support," he said.
When it does arrive, how will businesses use 5G?
The most credible interest in 5G currently, Bieler said, comes from the manufacturing sector. The technology, given its low latency, would be able to replace the data cables leading to factory machinery. In one scenario he mentioned, stationary and mobile robots could work in concert to complete tasks; given the need for perfect harmony in such an instance, a difference of a few milliseconds of latency is important.
Bieler said he saw 5G as part of a mix of technologies -- including cloud computing, artificial intelligence and virtual reality/augmented reality -- that are expected to see increased enterprise adoption in the coming years. The really convincing use cases for 5G, he said, would likely involve some mix of those developments.
Menezes said several industries, such as healthcare, are poised to benefit from 5G connectivity.
"There are some more compelling use cases than others, [like] anything related to large, dense data files that people need to upload or download in a mobile setting," he said.
Remote medical care is one such use; sending high-resolution images to an off-site physician could speed up diagnoses and treatments.
Like Bieler, Menezes also suggested VR and AR could be better powered by 5G connectivity. A worker repairing or maintaining field equipment could use augmented reality to access documentation or seek real-time human assistance in resolving a problem.
As with 5G, AR may yet bring about a shift in business, but several obstacles remain in rolling out the technology. The software managing such devices, for instance, must be able to handle proprietary information securely. Some firms have begun to offer management tools for AR headsets, like Lenovo with its ThinkReality platform.
How will 5G impact IT admins?
Menezes said implementing 5G would entail a learning curve for IT professionals, although the projected slow adoption of the technology could help with that. If 5G connectivity brings about more sophisticated and demanding applications for workers, IT admins could have the chance to participate in the ramp-up.
According to Bieler, IT's role in bringing 5G into the enterprise will reflect a general change to the profession's character.
Dan BielerAnalyst, Forrester Research
"I think it's part of a broader shift in what is expected out of IT professionals," he said. "The days are gone when someone tells them to implement a technology and they're just responsible for the rollout."
Bieler said companies now expect IT to take part in planning and strategy, as part of the overall effort to achieve business objectives and target priorities. Instead of merely selecting a carrier, he said, IT professionals are being asked to evaluate where mobile makes sense and what kind of processes need to be supported.
"IT managers and teams have to become much more strategically involved," he said.
Mueller said he anticipated 5G would affect some parts of an IT admin's job -- tracking devices, for example -- but did not foresee a fundamental shift in the profession. The technology, he said, has been overhyped thus far, although he would be happy to be proven wrong.