Tech briefing: 5G mobile telecoms

10 May 2019

Due to launch worldwide later this year, 5G is the latest generation of fabulously fast mobile broadband technology

If you believe the hype, 5G will be mind-bogglingly fast, incredibly reliable and available in most populated regions of the planet. When it arrives we will all wonder how we ever survived without it. 

Short for Fifth Generation (since it is the fifth generation of mobile broadband), 5G will enable us to send and receive huge amounts of data without being plugged into a landline. It will be cheaper, use less energy and it will reduce the time needed for messages to pass from sender to receiver; some say less than a millisecond. 

For mobile devices it will be revolutionary, offering data 100 times faster (experts say) than now. It will also radically improve the performance of driverless cars, delivery drones, video games, movie streaming, smart motorways, robotic healthcare and the countless interconnected devices in our homes (the so-called Internet of Things).

How it works

But don’t get too excited just yet. 5G will take a while to bed in – some suggest 2022 before it is widespread – and there are sure to be multiple teething problems. Like other mobile networks, 5G uses a matrix of land areas and antennae to send encoded data via radio waves. Initially 5G will piggyback on existing 4G networks. In time, 5G will use higher frequency radio waves offering lightning speeds of 10 gigabits per second or more.

But there is a problem. Those waves may be fast, but they have shorter ranges than the ones used by 4G, and struggle to penetrate walls, plant foliage and other obstacles. So they require a vast network of small cells and supporting antennae placed in and on top of buildings – fortunately these are small (a few centimetres long). 

Currently Motorola, Samsung, Xiaomi, LG, ZTE and Huawei offer 5G-ready phone models. All are first-generation and pricey.

Where 5G is currently available

The USA, South Korea, China and Japan lead the way in implementing 5G. It was famously showcased at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, with commercial networks rolled out across the rest of the country in December. Major US telecoms providers Verizon, Sprint and AT&T have launched across US cities. Other nations are currently testing.

How it will affect procurement

5G will allow employees to stream data from the internet far more quickly. Video conferencing will improve drastically, and autonomous delivery vehicles and drones will work more efficiently.

When it comes to procurement and supply, perhaps most interesting is the potential for 5G-connected sensors. It is hoped that tiny, low-cost devices will be attached to virtually any product in transit, allowing supply chain professionals to label and track all items in the chain, monitoring their exact location, perhaps even their temperature and humidity. Should an item get damaged or lost, there will be no dispute over blame. Sensors could also be used to monitor warehouses, automatically replacing items when stocks are low.

And those working within technology industries can expect that, with vast amounts of 5G hardware soon to flood the market – handsets, modems, smart TVs and more – life will get busier. And the need to recycle outdated devices will increase. 

Security issues

Given the power that tech firms might wield through the 5G hardware and software they supply, governments are nervous about communications security. One major player, Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, has already been banned in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, with other nations considering following suit. Some have suggested the Huawei bans could delay the rollout of 5G internationally. 

Smart Shelving

5G could revolutionise stock management through the use of sensors attached either to warehouse and stockroom shelves, or to products. Combining 5G with radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, the shelves would be able to sense the weight or number of products sitting on them, automatically restocking those that are running low, and updating inventory databases. This system would also streamline operations by connecting to warehouse robots or employees’ handheld devices, helping them locate certain products more quickly.

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