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The Edge of Tomorrow

To those of us old enough to remember the hiss of a clunky dial-up 2400 baud modem, the impending ability of 5G networks to deliver...

10 Minutes Read

To those of us old enough to remember the hiss of a clunky dial-up 2400 baud modem, the impending ability of 5G networks to deliver content at speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second will seem astonishing. In a couple of short decades, we’ve gone from a train carriage full of newspapers to one full of screens. With hardly a newspaper in sight …

The capabilities of networking technologies have profoundly changed our world – not just the newspaper and entertainment industries, but practically every aspect of life has been impacted by spread of G’s 1 through 4.

But as 2019 closes out, we stand on the cusp of a new generation of technology which will make present day network infrastructures look as quaint as that last remaining newspaper on the 7.36am does in the age of Twitter.

Simply put, the latest bandwidth upgrade – 5G – will be the next phase of the digital revolution.

With 5G as the backbone, MRIs will be sent from remote locations to radiologists thousands of miles away; wave turbines will upload huge volumes of environmental data from their lonely mid-ocean anchorage points; sensors in lamp posts will report on traffic conditions with millisecond latency, allowing for traffic algorithms to re-route autonomous vehicles with a precision and efficiency that will really move us. Fridges will speak to fridges (yours to your supermarket’s warehouse), and houses will tell us what is ailing them. Truly, a science fiction world will reveal itself.

2019 has seen the first shots of the 5G revolution fired, but 2020 will see full on combat unleashed, with more and more business and civic leaders beginning to understand that “digitization” and “digital transformation” are not simply about doing existing things faster, better, and cheaper but about the emergence of an entirely new range of things that can be done. Imagine trying to tell someone in 1914 in the midst of the second industrial revolution that that the next war – not the one they are just about to fight – will be ended by a hydrogen bomb. That is the leap we must now make – to imagine how the things that will be invented on the platforms of 5G, IoT, big data and AI will make the tools and technologies of the third industrial revolution seem no more powerful than the Gatling gun.

Beyond the Cloud

As more and more internet-connected devices –– augmented/virtual reality headsets, health trackers, toothbrushes, thermostats and doorbells, etc. –come online with the rise of 5G, more compute power and intelligence are needed to overcome the latency imposed by the internet’s existing on-off ramps. Enter edge computing, which turns these “things” and devices, like the web servers before them, into full card-carrying members of the IP address fraternity.

In industrial environments, edge analytics makes it possible to gain actionable insights in real time, where data is generated. Informed by data streamed from closed-circuit television and sensors, edge analytics can predict if/when remotely operated industrial machinery will fail, without a field engineer’s preventative maintenance visit.

In the not-too-distant future, geo-distributed machine learning (GDML), or artificial intelligence on the edge, will enable organizations to meet governance challenges posed by data that is born in geographically distributed places or used in dispersed locations. Country-specific regulatory challenges around data sovereignty could apply GDML to audit data stored at regional data centers, worldwide.

Edge capabilities, leveraging 5G transmission rates of 10 gigabits per second, will supercharge the streaming of everything from video to music, and facilitate the concept of the Code Halo (or digital twin), where a replica of a physical thing can be created virtually to simulate real-world applications.

While 5G and the cloud work together to turbocharge work that uses distributed computing, the next vista is at the network’s furthermost reaches. The cloud has been big, but the edge will be bigger.

5G and Your Future of Work: What you Need to Know – What You Need to Do

Though the cynical may see the emergence of 5G as simply the latest attempt by technology vendors to drive more sales, a more balanced view positions 5G as the foundation of the next generation of competitive advantage. Without a 5G backbone, it will be hard to operate at the speed or with the insight required in the third decade of the 21st century.

5G networks will be 10 times faster than today’s cable internet, and 100 times faster than our current 4G phones. To get a handle on what this means -- imagine streaming your favorite Netflix movie in HD to your phone vs. streaming 400 of your favorite moves in 8K (16 times the resolution of HD) all at the same time. 4G connectivity gave so much, but so much more is to come.

Business leaders need to ask themselves (in a cold light) – can our networks support these levels of customer (and employee) expectations? Is our infrastructure fit for a world of instant gratification and social media vilification? Does our business run with real-time data and insight that keeps us one step ahead of our competition? Does our Edge give us an edge?

Answering these questions requires business leaders to address the following strategic imperatives:

  • It’s the Bandwidth Stupid – Pioneers of the network computing movement once exclaimed, “The network is the computer.” And boy, were they right. In fact, as 5G pervades our world they were even more right than they could have imagined. Though many large corporations display signs of IT spending fatigue, and the thought of another round of major spending on infrastructure is unedifying, there is simply no way round the fact that without 5G companies will be trying to win a race with outdated technology that will be a brake in an age of acceleration, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman puts it. The cost of 5G may be obscene (some estimates put spending on 5G deployment over the next few years at $2.7T) but the cost of not investing in 5G will be even more expensive – commercial irrelevance.
  • Don’t Just Deploy: Design – 5G is a new technology but using it is not simply a technology challenge. As noted above, 5G offers the potential to not just do business as usual quicker and cheaper but do business as unusual. Does, as just one example, an insurance company need a department of (human) applications approvers (be they in Indiana or India) reviewing paper-based claims when sensors, drones, robotic process automation software, and AI-infused analytics can execute a transaction in real time without human intervention? Probably not. Designing new processes that take advantage of new possibilities is the work ahead of us all. By the way, given that most existing business processes were never designed – let alone engineered – in the first place, it makes no logical sense to talk about “business process reengineering.” 5G offers a greenfield environment. Take it.
  • Skills, Skills, Skills – Many large Fortune 500 businesses are already in an existential struggle to get access to leading-edge talent that can take them forward into the brave new work outlined throughout this article. 5G just raises the stakes one more notch. Executives – in HR, but not solely in HR – need to make recruiting relevant, world-class talent, job #1. Without it, everything else is moot. How is this done? Through all means necessary – contracting with service providers, “acquihires,” partnering, hiring, and re-training. Does your organization have a strategy for each of these approaches? Does it have a strategy that sees all of these elements as pieces of an overall jigsaw puzzle? If not, it’s time to put that strategy in place. The market won’t wait – 5G ensures that.
  • Secure the Future - The “great digital buildout” that 5G underpins, rests on one fundamental assumption: that the technology on which the future is built is safe. Even the most blue-chip of corporations (and the most deep-pocketed) admit (off the record) that they have been (and continue to be) repeatedly hacked. Making our connected homes, buildings, planes, operating theaters, parliaments, bank vaults, classrooms and virtual reality environments safe and secure is the most important (and limitless) job of the future. How do we do that? Well, start by taking your cybersecurity budget and quadruple it. You may think you’re spending a lot of money already, but you’re not. Large banks spend hundreds of millions of dollars on cybersecurity – which sounds good – but in truth, those amounts are typically less than 1% of their entire IT budget (which in turn are typically less than 10% of annual revenues). Given that market capitalizations of hundreds of billions of dollars rest on these foundations, this makes no sense. 5G requires iron-tight security. Otherwise we may as well as not even bother …
  • Decommission the Past – The last, seemingly trivial, but ultimately most important step that executives need to take to fully leverage the possibilities of 5G and the Edge is to turn off technology that is simply not relevant anymore. It is a truth not universally acknowledged, that many (many) large Fortune 500 companies are hampered from pursuing the new code rush because their legacy technology prevents them from doing so. In an era where the competitive advantages of technology have never been greater, these organizations are maintaining (at huge expense) systems that are a terrible competitive disadvantage. 5G will make this dynamic even more important. The future awaits; the past should be confined to the past.

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G’s 1 through 4 have been the source of incredible innovation, disruption, and opportunity. In a little over twenty years, the cloud created the world’s richest person and mobile computing changed how most of us do everything. But in time they will come to be seen as no more than the overture to a big-time symphony. 5G is set to usher in a world that in a generation or two will be unrecognizable, and will see mighty technological dynasties topple and even mightier ones born. The decisions that leaders make in the next phase of the fourth industrial revolution – today, tomorrow, next month – will be ones that ensure that the future is a place of promise, and not peril.


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