Photo: Asia Times / iStock

5G wireless technology is more than an evolutionary improvement over previous consumer networks. It will impact industry in ways previous networks did not and it should be treated as a national strategic asset – which it is not yet in the US.

If you look carefully, you will find that underlying major economic developments are fundamental innovations in communications.

One of my favorite examples is the development of railroads in the second half of the 19th century where telegraphic communications integral to railroad operation enabled the building of efficient transportation systems that transformed the industrial world.

Telegraphy enabled the control of the railroad traffic and the efficient operation of the trains over long distances. This network made possible the integration of resources, industrial and agricultural, over vast areas of the US, enabling the building of the world’s premier economy.

Fast forward to the 20th century and the development of digital wired and wireless communications. More recently the Internet was combined with other new technologies to transform the world. I remember visiting the Stanford University Internet center in the mid-1990s. The people operating the center thought the Internet was a great way for faculty to share material and communicate cheaply in a proprietary way.

The impact of the Internet came when high data rate computers and wired and wireless communication links spanned the globe and everybody had low-cost access to the Internet from personal devices. Massive government support was behind this development.

5G wireless technology now being implemented will have a comparable transformational impact on industry and commerce. It enables powerful and flexible wireless access to a ground-based communication system able to handle enormous amounts of data. In particular, 5G enables reliable and ubiquitous machine-to-machine networks

The term, IoT (Internet of Things) describes futuristic networks of sensors and machines that allow a very high level of automation. The implementation of IoT networks has been talked about for years but has been very limited because the current wireless networks were not designed to support such services economically.

The limitations included the lack of sufficient bandwidth and the shortage of built-in software and security features to make such networks viable. 5G addresses these limitations.

Machine networking will enable enormous improvements in automated services and manufacturing through capacity, security, reliability, and data management capability of a high order that is lacking in the older networks.

For illustration, consider a municipal water network. It is estimated that as much as 20% of the water in typical municipal water networks is lost through leaks. A major cause of this leakage is that the pressure increases during periods of low water use – at night, for example – resulting in increased pressure in parts of the pipe network. This higher pressure causes leaks at pipe joints, particularly since systems are typically old and deteriorating.

One way to reduce these high-pressure points is to place wireless sensors in the pipe system connected to computers that control the valves. The sensors monitor the water pressure and the information is transmitted to the controllers. Using appropriate software, high-pressure pipes are relieved of the stress by valve activation that redistributes the water flow. Implementing such solutions has been discussed for years but is difficult with current wireless systems. With 5G it becomes much more practical and reliable.

Manufacturing is an important IoT application. Sensors distributed through the plant are used in process control. In a previous article, I discussed the future of flexible robotic manufacturing. A key enabler for this is automatic system control through networked sensors feeding data to local or central controllers. For example, wireless sensor networks can monitor equipment status in order to recommend preventive maintenance.

Finally, when reliable wireless networks can handle large volumes of data it becomes increasingly practical to remotely control industrial facilities. For example, I visited an operations center in Beijing controlling water treatment facilities hundreds of kilometers away through an extensive network of sensors. The labor-saving in such networks is obvious even if the control system was still largely based on landlines.

Thanks to cheaper and more flexible wireless, 5G enables value creation. The applications are practically unlimited as we will see in the years to come.

Dr Henry Kressel is a technologist, inventor and long term Warburg Pincus private equity investor. Among his technological achievements is the pioneering of the modern semiconductor laser device that enables modern communications systems. He is the author with N. Winarsky, of If You Really Want to Change the World: A Guide to Creating, Building and Sustaining Breakthrough Ventures (Harvard Business Press, 2015).