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By Panch Chandrasekaran, director of the 5G Carrier Infrastructure Segment at Arm.

With 5G, real-time computing will become a reality. The high speeds, high data throughput, and high number of connections that 5G enables will effectively erase the lag time between when data gets generated to when we can act on it. 

And, while self-driving vehicles might be the most visible new example of real-time processing most of us see, they are really only the tip of the iceberg, especially as private networks and network slicing roll out to bring the power of carrier-grade infrastructure to more locations and situations. IDC estimates that real-time data will grow by 50x between 2000 and 2030 and constitute 30% of all data by then.

The data-defined factory

Manufacturing will be one of the first places where a real-time data revolution takes place. A recent poll from Economist Impact and NTT found that 25% of automotive and manufacturing companies are piloting private 5G networks and 59% will deploy them over the next six to 24 months to help with predictive maintenance, reducing downtime and energy efficiency, among other applications. 

Today’s factories aren’t nearly as connected as you might think. Omdia estimates that only 10% of all industrial equipment shipped in 2020 was IIoT-enabled and the installed base of “smart” equipment was even smaller. 

Why so disconnected? Historically, the risks outweighed the rewards. Seventy-five percent of those polled by Economist cited security issues with protocols such as Wi-Fi as the primary barrier to connected factories.  The data volumes and speeds needed on factory floors far exceed many traditional protocols. Additionally, retrofitting factory floor equipment — which can date back to the 70s — has to be done without disruption. A minute of downtime can cost $20,000 or more. 

Private 5G or secure network slices shared across an industrial park provide a practical way to bridge this divide. Lenovo, for instance, is running a trial with a major manufacturer on using 5G to reduce energy and increase uptime. (Lenovo is also experimenting with 5G to optimize its corporate offices.) 

Once the trials move into commercial deployment, real-time insight will start to change their economic equations. Pharmaceutical companies, for instance, will be able to produce medicines closer to patients while improving quality control and regulatory compliance. Or consider recalls. A food recall can cost $10 million or more. With live data streams the food industry can identify problems early in the process.      

Sustainability through data with 5G infrastructure

Another early adopter will be the electric power industry. Smart meters, home monitoring systems and other devices will be all linked into sprawling, metro-sized networks to unobtrusively balance power loads in real-time to lower costs, eliminate unnecessary consumption, and ensure security. 

Better, more accurate visibility will mean utilities won’t have to scramble to buy fossil power from neighboring states. Large power consumers can avoid the dreaded “demand charges” that can add 30% to their power bill.  Consumers, meanwhile, will get rebates and cleaner air. All of these applications, however, depend on live verification and control. Without real-time infrastructure, these systems won’t deliver. 

These conservation efforts will also become more invisible as the number of devices and data sources increase. And, yes, there are a lot of sources to tap into: optimizing the world’s 800 million electric motors would free up enough electricity to power all the households U.S. and Germany

A good portion of this utility 5G infrastructure could also perform a double duty. Some co-ops, such as Tennessee’s EPB, already offer broadband services through the networks they initially for smart metering. 

A more resilient supply chain with 5G

5G can also reduce unloading time for cargo ships from four days to two by better orchestrating loading. With over 5,300 vessels worldwide, that’s 10,000 days saved. As the bunker fuel used by ships is incredibly dirty, reduced turnaround also means reduced emissions. Rotterdam, Tianjin, Singapore, Los Angeles, Antwerp, and others are already experimenting with private 5G infrastructure. 

Supply chain visibility will occur in other markets as well. One software developer we recently spoke to is working with a surgical equipment company to live track the location and use history. The idea is to allow hospitals to share expensive equipment more easily and cut costs while meeting FDA guidelines around equipment calibration. With 5G the sharing economy can be expanded almost anywhere.

Private, public, trial and error

Initially, many real-time services will be delivered through private microcell networks: quality of service and low latencies can be more easily achieved in these dedicated, campus-wide networks. McKinsey & Co. predicts shipments of 5G modules for IoT-like applications will rise from $180 million in 2022 to $10 billion by 2030

NXP, Qualcomm, Marvell, Ampere and others have developed a range of programmable multicore processors that combine signal processing, radio and core networking into a single chip to reduce the complexity and cost of private networks. Companies like Sunsea AIoT Gigabyte, ADLINK, SuperMicro, and Nexcom, meanwhile, are delivering the necessary hardware and software while conducting trials to determine the appropriate network configurations. 

While many early adopters will own and manage their own networks, carriers and cloud providers such as AWS will increasingly provide the communications and computing backbones for these networks. In industrial parks, secure network slicing on hybrid networks will start to take off as an alternative to dedicated networks.

Consumer applications — imagine a cloud-connected app that could analyze your vital signs to plan your kick during the heat of a marathon — will likely start on public networks. With the technology building blocks coming into place, the next five years are going to be about figuring out what applications (and what underlying infrastructure) work best. Trial and error will be necessary. But there is one thing for certain. Information velocity and our demand for it only go one way: up. 

Panch Chandrasekaran is the director of the 5G Carrier Infrastructure Segment at Arm.

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