As we all shamble, bleary-eyed back to our desks, I know what your first thought is: We can officially start unwrapping some of those technologies that have been a little too cutting-edge to be worth considering in 2019.

There’s certainly no shortage of digital ink that’s already been spilled about 5G, something that’s existed more as a marketing gimmick up until this point (I don’t remember such self-congratulatory fanfare for LTE). But now that it’s actually being rolled out (though most hardware isn’t yet compatible) we have a better idea of what the capabilities deliver in practice, and what it might actually mean for service. The short answer? A lot.

I should probably start by saying what 5G is. At its core, it’s really, really, really fast internet. What does that actually mean? Here’s a comparison: 4G LTE at maximum speed caps at 50 megabytes per second. The average cable internet connection caps somewhere between 20 and 150, depending on where you live and how much you pay. 5G is said to max out at 20 Gigabytes per second (It’s notable that current builds cap at about 5gbps but 20 is the potential built into the radio bands).

All those megas and gigas mean a lot to those of us who were excited to add 16 megabytes of RAM into our PCs in 1996 but for those of you who actually had friends, here’s some super basic computer math: 1 Gigabyte is equal to 1,000 megabytes, which means 5G has the potential of reaching speeds that are 400 times faster than what we have today. Imagine if your next car didn’t top out at 160 or whatever, but instead could get you from New York to London in 45 minutes.

So—what can we do with really, really, really fast internet? I’ll start with a very basic example:

While attending Field Service USA back in April, I had a chance to speak to a gentleman who worked for a component manufacturer. They had recently deployed an augmented reality solution but were seeing dismal utilization rates in the field. What the business hadn’t taken into consideration was that many of the plants that they service are in fairly remote areas, often with middling cellular service, so the technicians couldn’t effectively use the streaming services of their AR devices in an effective way, thus rendering them useless.

There’s obviously a few teachable elements at play here but the most fundamental is that, as I’ve said many times before, technology adoption needs to progress in a logical sequence. Artificial Intelligence needs strong data sources, connected devices need the right sensors, and so on. At the very core of that, the floor that your technologies are built on, is solid internet connectivity. Misunderstanding the scope of that or having a blind spot to some of its failings will undermine any attempts at technology superiority.

Theoretically, 5G could be the silver bullet that resolves some of these connectivity issues, assuming that it offers lower latency and improved coverage in the areas in which these technicians are working. Of course, to compensate for that, all of this businesses’ handsets need to be updated to 5G, and we’re still, I’d expect, about eighteen months out from that being a reasonable standard. This example is a pretty obvious use case for 5G—Things move faster, you can therefore do more with streaming services. There’s a less explicitly obvious change coming, though.

Today, your main computing power sits on your desk or in your pocket. The internal CPUs of these devices, even if enhanced through connectivity, do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to complex processes. Sure, your CRM is cloud-based, great, but if you’re running any sort of complex infrastructure management, the whole of the picture needs to be hybrid-ized in some way. The interconnectivity of 5G hopes to upend that, allowing for much more complexity to be managed directly over networks. More networked computing means faster, more accurate to-the-second data collecting, and it means faster responses to exceptions that might not require a technician dispatch. At its core, (when partnered with the right software) it means centralizing more data collected from more sources and creating a single source of truth from which not just service, but all areas of the business, can work in the same langauge.

Is that a bit optimistic? Yes, and it requires a lot of work to put the right utilities inside your serviceable assets, in the hands, and on the vehicles of your technicians. 5G is coming, will dramatically impact service’s effectiveness in likely hundreds of small ways, and only those companies taking stock of what they have today will be ready when it’s time.

Infrastructure, security, and hardware challenges still remain (and warrant a future discussion when we understand the repercussions better), which means that the full promise of 5G is probably still a few years away. But if you’re thinking about the sequence of technology adoption that your business needs to be ready, you know that you’ll need to start moving soon.

Tom Paquin
Author

Contributor, Future of Field Service