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5G for business is about more than just smartphones

Smart digital leaders are focusing on how their business can use next-generation technologies to support its operations and serve its customers.

While at least some consumers are already experiencing faster network speeds thanks to the ongoing 5G network rollouts, businesses are also beginning to explore how the technology might support the delivery of new and better services to customers.

Beyond giving smartphones a speed boost for faster video streaming, tech analysts argue that over the next few years 5G will help to unlock the potential of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, edge computing and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Michael Cole, chief technology officer of the European Tour and Ryder Cup, wants to create a technology-enabled golf course, where a combination of data, sensors and mobility keeps players, spectators and broadcasters connected and informed, with 5G networks an important element of that vision.

"My ultimate aspiration is to create a connected course – and that's all about how we can converge the many disparate infrastructures into a common backbone on the golf course," he says.

At the recent Open de España in Madrid, Cole's IT organisation worked with telecommunications giant Telefónica to explore how the European Tour could take advantage of 5G. 

That process focused on a range of data-heavy use cases across broadcast capability, media services and onto Wi-Fi provision. While the main aim of these explorations is to identify how a connected course might help to boost operational efficiency, Cole says there's also another potential big benefit: sustainability.

He estimates the European Tour still deploys upwards of 30 to 40 kilometres of fibre and copper at every tournament. Cole says 5G can enable the creation of a connectionless networking environment, which reduces the necessity for resource-heavy infrastructure.

"If we can reduce that footprint through remote production techniques, aided through technology such as 5G, then it means that we're having to incur less flights, less people on site and less hotels, and it all adds to that reduction in carbon footprint and supports the sustainability strategy that is fundamentally important to our business," he says.

Another CIO who's already exploring potential applications for 5G is Brian Roche, director of information technology at George Best Belfast City Airport. He's planning to build a secure 5G private network to automate baggage handling, passenger movements and other tasks across the airport site.

Roche has a five-year plan to push a data-led business transformation at the airport. His aim is to use 5G networking, sensors and a range of connected applications to boost the operational efficiencies of the airport and improve the flow of passengers.

The airport already has data-led platforms in place, one for camera and vision analytics, and another that supports risk management and the movement of people and devices around the airport. The organisation is working through a list of 40 digital transformation projects.

Roche is keen to do more, particularly when it comes to using 5G, mobility and data to improve the customer experience. "My vision is to create a touchless, seamless journey from your car to the plane," he says. 

"I would love to build an airport that has the same sorts of capabilities as an Amazon Go store. So, as a passenger, you drive onto the site, the technology welcomes you, it gives you the option to upgrade your parking, and then – when you get into the airport – you can pick something off the shelf in Duty Free and you get automatically charged."

Roche also points to governance and security concerns when it comes to implementing 5G networks and applications: "We have to make sure we comply with GDPR, the correct consent has to be given, and people will always have the ability to opt out. You have to build security by design when you're doing this data-led stuff."

While some organisations are working to identify the potential benefits of 5G networks within their own businesses, others are looking at how the increased use of 5G-enabled phones could provide a potential avenue to improved customer experiences. 

Milena Nikolic, CTO at transport specialist Trainline, is overseeing a range of tech-led innovations around the company's app, which is a one-stop-shop for European train and coach travel. While 5G forms part of these engagements, it's more of an enabler on the consumer side rather than a key element of business model transformation. 

Nikolic says the company's app is not a massive user of data. For Trainline, the main benefit of 5G comes from consumers having access to faster network speeds and being able to get hold of the app's features they need quickly from any location.

"Customer experience is the bit that I'm most excited about," she says. "For consumers, we want to be there every day, to help them on their journeys and to alert them to disruptions and show them alternative routes. We will definitely benefit from the uptick in 5G at some stage and, ultimately, it will lead to faster user experiences."

So, across hardware and onto applications, IT leaders are taking a range of approaches to 5G. While some tech chiefs are investing in dedicated infrastructure, others are exploring how their services will be improved by widespread access to faster networking speeds.

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