The deployment of 5G and the improvements it delivers in the areas of data throughput, edge computing, ultra-low latency, and efficiency are imminent. While the investment case for 3G and 4G technologies was fueled by staggering cell phone adoption rates and corresponding demand for data capacity by net new users across the globe, the case for investment in 5G adds compelling opportunities, including some in the value chain.

According to 451 Research, smartphone adoption globally is nearing saturation levels in mature economies and 5G will be needed to reduce the costs associated with delivering high-quality broadband services for mobile and increasingly fixed broadband use cases. While the transitions from 2G to 3G and 3G to 4G were driven largely by consumer demand for mobile data services, 5G topologies bring several attributes that industrial enterprises can use beyond fatter pipes to internet services. The challenge, for any operator considering 5G, will be choosing the use cases, verticals, and ecosystems where they can play a meaningful role.

Four Edge Archetypes

There has been considerable discussion in recent years about the edge of the network, but little agreement on exactly what “the edge” meant. In the interest of defining the edge, Vertiv evaluated more than 100 current and emerging edge use cases and conducted an in-depth analysis of the 24 most impactful to identify commonalities that could simplify infrastructure development and deployment. This led to the identification of our edge archetypes that bring clarity to the complex edge landscape.

These archetypes are characterized primarily by their bandwidth and latency requirements — both key drivers of 5G. Within each archetype, multiple use cases have characteristics that make them good candidates for 5G. Some will need 5G to achieve the performance required to support adoption of the use case while others are working without 5G today but will be inherently improved by the capabilities 5G delivers. 

These archetypes are:

  • Machine-to-machine latency sensitive
  • Human latency sensitive
  • Data intensive
  • Life critical


Using 5G to Deliver Low-Latency Data for Machine Consumption

Machine-to-machine communications may represent the first frontier on which 5G can truly demonstrate its value. Machine-to-machine latency sensitive use cases are characterized by extremely low-latency requirements and some use cases are now in a stage where 5G technology may provide the boost required to advance their maturity. These include smart security and smart grid technologies.

Smart security: Smart security uses real-time, high-definition image and facial recognition to identify potential bad actors at a public event. This technology gained attention in 2018 when it was used at performances by the singer Taylor Swift. The security firm set up a kiosk outside the performance venue showing Swift’s rehearsal videos. As attendees stopped to view the videos, their facial images were captured and sent to a command center where they were compared against images of known Swift stalkers. The theory behind the deployment was that Swift’s stalkers would certainly take the time to watch her rehearsals and this application was possible without 5G because it focused on a very narrow target range and did not impact the wait times of those entering the event. At the same time, it helped ensure the safety of the singer and did not add significant costs to organizers or concertgoers.

Using 5G would enhance the latency and bandwidth of data transmission supporting this use case, allowing scanning of multitudes more concert goers, as well as simultaneous and instant access to multiple criminal databases. With 5G, concertgoers could pass by facial recognition cameras as they enter the venue without impacting wait times, enhancing overall event security without reducing concertgoers’ quality of experience. For a limited technology investment, the venue creates competitive advantage that drives multiple increased revenue opportunities.

Smart grid: 5G may also be an important enabler of the continued evolution of smart grid technologies by supporting increased integration of renewable energy resources and improved demand management. Applying 5G and smart grid technologies all the way to residential and commercial meters will enable the grid to react more fluidly to sharp changes in demand driven by weather or other factors, cutting power to non-essential loads while ensuring essential loads have the power they need. The speed at which these decisions and actions can be made with 5G makes the smart grid business case more appealing.

Using 5G to Deliver Low-Latency Data for Human Consumption

Human-latency sensitive use cases require low latencies to optimize the experience of humans engaging with technology. While they typically feature a geographically disperse user base that may make it difficult to fully leverage limited 5G deployments, there will be opportunities to use 5G in conjunction with other data transmission methods to improve the user experience and enable new capabilities, particularly in regard to augmented reality/haptic computing and smart retail.

Augmented reality and haptic computing: Potential applications for augmented reality extend from enhanced gaming to medical image visualization to equipment service to military training. Haptic computing, which can be used in conjunction with AR, is the ability to use touch as a way of controlling computer applications, such as interacting with virtual 3-D objects in space.

With these technologies, medical students can practice delicate surgical techniques virtually, feeling what it's like to suture blood vessels or perform other procedures. Service technicians can quickly access 3-D models or other visualizations to help them diagnose and repair equipment or can work remotely with on-site personnel to resolve problems without visiting the site. In the defense field, augmented reality and haptic computing can help prepare for potentially dangerous tasks, such as defusing bombs.

Fundamental to the continuing maturity of these applications is the ability to move from supporting primarily fixed locations to supporting mobile users without impacting the quality of the experience. The higher throughputs and lower latencies 5G delivers are essential to this transition.

Smart retail: 5G also has the potential to accelerate the digital transformation currently occurring in retail. The addition of 5G technology to an existing network architecture can help power the strategies that allow retailers to adapt and thrive in the digital age, enabling increased personalization, greater use of analytics to identify trends and predict demand, and effective use of virtual and augmented reality to enhance the in-store experience.

Smart retail is being implemented today without 5G as large retailers preemptively invest in store enhancements as a step toward a more lucrative future. The addition of 5G has the potential to enhance these efforts by reducing customer acquisition costs and improving customer retention and repeat purchases. When retailers can access multiple demographic databases, personalized search histories, previous purchases, and other datasets that influence purchase decisions in near real-time, they can custom tailor offers to shoppers while in-store or in close proximity to the store. They can also model data across a broad geography of stores and individuals to improve decision making. With current technology, this volume of data can’t be accessed and processed fast enough to support this level of personalization and customization.

Using 5G to Support Data Intensive Edge Use Cases

A number of edge use cases can be characterized by the high volume of data being generated or consumed at the edge, making it impractical to directly support these use cases from a central or core data center. 5G will emerge as a valuable last-mile delivery solution for these high-bandwidth use cases. Two that show particular promise in the coming years are virtual reality and smart cities.

Virtual reality: High-definition content delivery, the largest current edge use case in terms of data volume, has already undergone a transformation in which content has been pushed closer to users through local and regional data hubs, and there is a question of whether users will be willing to pay more for the lower latency/higher image quality 5G enables. However, virtual reality amplifies the data challenges associated with content delivery to the point where 5G may become a necessity for this use case to flourish. Delivering VR video quality similar to HD TV quality requires bandwidth of 80-100 Mbits/second compared to 5 Mbits/second for HD video streaming. It will take 5G and its ability to leverage more spectral bands and wider bandwidths for a truly high-quality networked virtual reality experience, and there is reason to believe users are willing to pay for this experience. The National Basketball Association first adopted VR technology for game broadcasts in the 2016-2017 season and has notably expanded its offering for 2018-2019. The league now offers one VR game a night, compared to one a week in the past, has expanded the number of VR headsets supported, and enabled fans to watch games live alongside their friends in virtual courtside seats. The league sees VR as a way to grow its international fanbase by replicating the live experience for fans unable to attend games.

Smart Cities: Another strong candidate to support early deployment of 5G is smart cities. Smart cities applications, like autonomous vehicles, require an immediate sensing and inference activity that happens locally and is based on continuously honed machine learning algorithms. However, the machine learning activity does not happen in real time but over days, weeks, or months. Latency isn’t an issue here as much as data volume. 5G is critical to managing the sheer volume of sensors and their data volumes, particularly as the data returns to the hub in the hub-and-spoke footprint characteristic of the Data Intensive Archetype. Aggregating hundreds or thousands of sensors at the hub that in turn has to access multiple external sources like weather, events, planned roadwork, and accidents makes 5G a critical component for the future of smart cities. To get an idea of the volume of data that could be generated in a smart city, consider Santander, Spain, which serves as a smart city test bed. The city has deployed more than 12,000 sensors to support traffic intensity, irrigation, and environmental monitoring as well as event reporting. The variety of sensors within the city make over 300,000 observations daily just to support these functions. Moving beyond monitoring to proactive management will require faster transmission of even more data.

Using 5G to Support Life Critical Edge Use Cases

The Life Critical Archetype encompasses applications where edge analytics and computing support use cases that directly impact human health and safety. Life Critical use cases include digital health, smart transportation and logistics, autonomous vehicles, autonomous robots, and drones.

Where other archetypes tend to have a dominant data characteristic, the Life Critical Archetype is characterized by the need for extremely high availability and low latency.

In general, these use cases are less mature than those in other archetypes and this lack of maturity, combined with their life-critical nature, makes them poorly suited for early adoption of 5G. While they will benefit greatly from 5G and may prove to be the most economically valuable edge use cases, 5G must prove its value and reliability in other applications before being used in life critical applications.

Autonomous vehicles, for example, could become one of the most widely used and disruptive edge applications to emerge in the future. But, while autonomous vehicles are being tested on the roads today, questions remain on how widespread deployment will be supported.

Bottom Line

While initial deployments of 5G will focus on software upgrades to existing cell towers with 4G radios, the need will come soon enough to both upgrade existing cell infrastructure that does not contain 4G radios and to expand the network to places where infrastructure does not currently exist. Funding that continued expansion will require identifying use cases and applications that will be adopted quickly and have a potential to create revenue.

Of course, 5G technologies and the market both are changing quickly. It’s certainly possible that unexpected innovations or market fluctuations could change the way telcos prioritize their 5G deployments.


For more information on edge archetypes and the use cases associated with them, see the Vertiv white paper, Defining Four Edge Archetypes and Their Technology Requirements.