We have been hearing about 5G for a long time. It promises unprecedented speed, seamless connection, network connectivity even in areas that still have no coverage, virtual reality, autonomous cars and, to put it briefly, almost a second invention of the wheel.
But promises can be broken. Therefore, we decided to investigate the potential of 5G technology for Maintenance and Facility Management in depth. Will technicians really experience this extraordinary connectivity in the field, even in hard-to-reach areas?
What are the differences between 4G and 5G?
It seems appropriate to start this article by explaining the difference between 4G, which already serves most of the country, and 5G. Without going into too much technical detail, 4G and 5G use different frequencies. 5G uses higher frequencies, so it can offer faster download speeds. It can reach up to 10 Gbps, which means something like downloading 800MB in a second.
As well as being faster, it also has a lower latency. Those little “lags” – which we don’t always experience in everyday life, but that can mean game over in a streaming game – are almost gone. That latency, which today ranges between 25-35 milliseconds, can drop to 5. That value, practically negligible, paves the way for telemedicine, surgeries, and remote driving, for example.
While the differences in speed and latency are the most obvious, 5G is also expected to be able to support more devices connected at the same time. In theory, it will be possible to have one million devices per square kilometre. This connectivity will enable a real boom in Industry 4.0 and trigger mass adoption of smart devices, including in our daily lives.
So, what’s the catch with 5G?
5G’s high-frequency waves have a much shorter range. While 4G has a range of up to 10 miles (approximately 16 km), 5G only has a range of 1000-1500 feet (304-457 metres). As if that wasn’t enough, buildings, walls, towers, and trees can block or absorb the signal of the high-frequency waves. So, there is a need to renew the entire telecommunications infrastructure.
Simply put: 5G sounds great for Pokémon Go, but it doesn’t (yet) allow you to hunt for breakdowns without delays. If you were hoping to get coverage in lift shafts, underground floors, and other places with poor coverage, the solution is not immediate. To work, 5G will need Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), possibly with several smaller remote units. DAS already exist and are also compatible with 3G and 4G networks.
In countries where 5G coverage is more developed, such as the United States, Japan, China, and South Korea, solutions have been sought to spread antennas throughout cities without completely distorting the urban landscape. Ericsson has already developed several solutions to hide “small cells” under our noses: on manhole covers, lampposts, MUPIs, or bus stops.
These two factors explain why the implementation of 5G has been so slow. On the one hand, it requires a tremendous investment in new infrastructure. The most populated urban areas offer the highest return, while more remote areas (where telemedicine, for example, could be extremely useful) come last. On the other hand, there is also the need to develop 5G-enabled devices and figure out how to best integrate them into our lives and our cities.
Is 5G harmful to people?
Given that we will all have to live within 450m of an antenna, there has been some debate about the potential health risks. An article by Deloitte compiled the main doubts about 5G and came to the conclusion that the risks are similar to those of many other technologies we already use. After all, computers and microwaves also use electromagnetic frequencies.
The World Health Organization is more cautious. While it acknowledges that there is no evidence that 5G is harmful to health if exposure is within established limits, it warns about the lack of studies on the subject. For now, it only rules out the possibility of causing problems in the brain, as some articles have suggested. If it has effects on us, possibly they will be on the skin and eyes.
What can we expect from 5G in Maintenance and Facility Management?
The impact of 5G in Maintenance
Realistically, what can we expect from 5G in Maintenance and Facility Management? Given all the features we have already explained, the greatest potential of 5G is in predictive maintenance and prescriptive maintenance. It allows more equipment to be connected simultaneously, systems to be further integrated, and quality data to be obtained without latency. It also paves the way for remote repairs with augmented reality.
We have every reason to believe that 5G – and the expansion of IoT to all sides of the business, from suppliers to the end of the production line (in the case of manufacturing) – will help to reduce downtime, increase asset reliability, and improve quality control. However, due to the limitations we have addressed, it may take some time for technicians on the field to feel the true impact of 5G, without network constraints.
The impact of 5G on Facility Management
In FM, it is a double-edged sword. Even if it enables intelligent and increasingly efficient buildings, it also brings operational challenges. The entire structure that supports 5G will join the long list of assets that FM managers usually have under their responsibility. As of now, they must already consider 5G compatibility when choosing or replacing equipment.
One of the major responsibilities of facility managers will be to ensure mobility and connectivity within buildings. To do this they will need to circumvent the obstacles that can block 5G, either through technology that already exists, such as DAS or with alternatives that emerge in the meantime. Conference rooms, concert halls, and public spaces, where more devices are concentrated, will need dedicated access nodes.
Should you worry about 5G?
Yes. Despite still being at an early stage of implementation in the UK, it is already important to prepare our infrastructures for the upcoming change and choose equipment that is ready for it. Don’t compromise your future!