Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 5G: What it means for edge computing

Six industries impacted by the combination of 5G and edge computing

Industry observers say both technologies are poised to significantly improve application performance and enable huge amounts of data to be processed in real-time.

When people talk about the combination of 5G and edge computing, you hear terms like 'inextricably linked' and 'extremely compatible'. The synergies between the two technologies make them a match made in heaven.

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That's because edge computing -- a distributed, open IT architecture where data is processed by the device or by a local computer or server -- is enhanced by the power of 5G, which increases speeds by up to 10 times compared to 4G.

Industry observers say both technologies are poised to significantly improve application performance and enable huge amounts of data to be processed in real time.

"The primary reason for implementing edge computing in 5G is to reduce round-trip data latency between mobile clients, the mobile network core, and cloud computing resources,'' explained David Witkowski, an IEEE senior member, and CEO of Oku Solutions

5G and edge computing will allow computing to be offloaded onto mobile devices at a greater scale and a reasonable cost, Witkowski added.

SEE: 5G: What it means for IoT (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Both 5G and edge computing need to mature

Edge computing is "extremely compatible with 5G," said Dan Hays, a corporate strategy leader at PwC US. But he warned that there are some commercial challenges.

"Edge computing technology has matured significantly, but business models are still emerging,'' Hays said. "Questions about the optimal placement of edge data centers remain, focused primarily on how close they should be to mobile sites. While early edge use cases are already being trialed, many questions remain about who will pay for this additional infrastructure versus who gains the benefits of reduced latency and network traffic."

5G is still very much in the nascent stage, and there are also some technical challenges to contend with. "It's a higher frequency with a smaller wave, so it can't get through things like buildings,'' and 5G is also "more subject to environmental conditions," said Sean Roberts, general manager of the cloud business unit at Ensono.

"Weather and humidity can impact the performance of 5G,'' Roberts added; he also noted that, as 5G continues to proliferate, there will be many more cell towers.

That's consistent with recently released research by PwC, which reported that "the performance of 5G networks remains uneven."

Widespread usage is not here yet "because it's a big challenge to upgrade infrastructure," agreed Mark Sami, a director at West Monroe. Right now, for example, to get Verizon's Ultra Wideband network, "you need a line of sight to a tower so you have to be in close proximity," Sami said.

SEE: IT leader's guide to edge computing (TechRepublic Premium)

5G rollouts continue

5G rollouts are continuing, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. There is now 75% US coverage compared to 60% in July 2020, while device penetration has grown to 8%, compared to 2% in July, according to the PwC report.

By July 2021, 80% of the US population is expected to have 5G coverage available at home or work with a device penetration of 12%, the consulting firm said.

PwC expects 5G to hit a tipping point in 2023.

Already, partnerships have formed that reflects the pairing of 5G and edge computing.  AWS built its Wavelength infrastructure in partnership with Verizon, and Google has partnered with AT&T.

"It's all about driving applications and how do you make these 5G and edge solutions [work] in a manner where you create more opportunities for the developer community to write applications to that infrastructure architecture,'' said Sid Nag, a vice-president at Gartner.

Some 90% of industrial enterprises will use edge computing by 2020, according to Frost & Sullivan.

"The applications are endless,'' observed Chris Steffen, a research director at Enterprise Management Associates. "Every vertical is going to be impacted in some way,'' he added, depending on specific use cases and relevance.

Here are six industries that will be most impacted by 5G and edge computing.

Telcos

 It may seem obvious, but edge computing is a strategic opportunity for telcos. Those that fail to develop an approach to the edge "could risk losing their share of the growing market as non-telco first movers continue to develop the technology and dictate the market dynamics,'' according to UK-based consultancy STL Partners

However, they are still grappling with commercial immaturity. Many network operators are still developing their 5G offerings and, in many cases, aren't yet selling features such as network slicing or private 5G networks in a form that enterprises want, according to Gartner. Service plans and pricing will evolve through 2022.

Mobile operators can use edge computing to differentiate their service offerings, provide new applications, enable customers and partners to utilize the distributed computing network in app development, and improve network performance and achieve cost efficiencies and savings, the analyst firm said.

SEE: Research: Autonomous transportation in the enterprise: Mixed impact anticipated (TechRepublic Premium)

Automotive

Transportation is one of the first areas where we'll see the blend of 5G and edge computing implemented through autonomous vehicles and other cars, according to IEEE's Witkowski. "Instead of building cars packed with a lot of heavy and expensive onboard computing to handle driver assistance tasks, vehicle manufacturers will use offload computing to process sensor data -- and once standardized, those offload computing systems will be able to process sensor data from multiple vehicles simultaneously,'' he said. 

This all hinges on low-latency data connection between the vehicles and the computing resources -- latencies that 5G and edge computing can provide, Witkowski said.  

"5G will augment what's in the vehicle to be able to process everything going on around it and leverage the cloud to augment the vehicle's capabilities,'' said West Monroe's Sami.

Automakers are also increasingly incorporating cellular data connections into cars "to unlock new direct and indirect monetization opportunities that leverage edge compute, IoT, and cloud-based data storage and analytics,'' Gartner said.

Manufacturing

The smart factory, a highly digitalized and connected production facility, "is the factory of the future,'' according to Gartner. Among their capabilities, "The addition of wireless technologies in smart factories allows for an automated alert system that identifies critical issues and faults that need immediate attention."

The concept of digital twins in manufacturing is gaining momentum, too, "so huge amounts of sensor data are being rolled out,'' said Ensono's Roberts. Couple that with the rise in robotics and automated factories, and this massive amount of data needs strong connectivity.

"This is where 5G is starting to come into play,'' Roberts said. "The total capacity on that 5G network handling all these devices…rather than using their own networks."

Retail

Forrester maintains that the future of 5G "will speed up the transformation of the retail sector by technology building blocks for frictionless end-to-end experiences," through enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine-type communications, and low-latency communications.

5G will boost opportunities for data-generated customer insights and VR and AR services so retailers can differentiate themselves, the firm said.

It can also be a game-changer for retailers who want to gain more actionable insights in areas such as merchandising and point of sale in stores. 

For consumers, 5G will help provide a "greater, faster, safer, and smarter experience when shopping,'' Gartner said.

SEE: Research: How 5G will transform business (TechRepublic Premium)

Entertainment/Gaming

Some of the earliest opportunities will come in fixed wireless access, cloud-based gaming, and augmented reality applications, some of which may utilize wearables, said PwC's Hays.

"Entertainment is going to be huge -- technologies like mixed reality, virtual reality, and augmented reality will become more mainstream, and 5G enables higher power to do that," concurred Sami.

Sami also noted that high-end gaming and interactive media will make huge strides because high-power processing can happen in the cloud.

Healthcare

The efficacy of remote healthcare may result in it becoming the norm, which will be enabled by technologies including 5G, AI, analytics, and edge, according to Gartner.

Expect to see devices that are more sophisticated at measuring body temperature and heartbeat, as well as connecting an elderly person who has fallen to emergency help, said Ensono's Roberts. 

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