As an emerging-technology investor, I am always on the lookout for new technologies that can improve existing markets and enable new ones.
That’s why 5G really intrigues me. This advanced digital cellular network protocol opens up new frequency spectrum, bringing with it much higher throughput and latency performance. This positions 5G as a potentially game-changing technology and investment opportunity that could fuel a new generation of applications and solve some of the world’s biggest problems.
5G is not just “4G but better.” It taps new spectrum that will drive innovative business opportunities and use cases. For example, in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands, a.k.a. the “millimeter wave band,” reams of new bandwidth could transform the communications carrier landscape as we know it while further improving the end-user experience of mobility.
Before 5G, wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon couldn’t compete with, say, a Comcast’s cable business. There just wasn’t enough bandwidth or coverage to help them push into that market. That will change with the lightning fast data rates of 5G, which best today’s wireline (cable, fiber, DSL) speeds while clocking in approximately 100 times faster than 4G LTE. And, in an instance of turnabout-is-fair-play, cable providers can ride the 5G wave to get in on the wireless carriers’ action, extending high-speed service from the home to the coffee shop to the traditional workplace.
This means consumers, mobile workers, and the enterprise – remember, businesses are hungry for 5G, too – will simply access 5G everywhere they need it – all while benefiting from better coverage and performance.
AI at the edge
These evolutionary improvements also set the stage for revolutionary application development and new, innovation-driven markets. That’s where AI is entering the picture and converging with 5G – specifically at the “edge.” One tantalizing example of this is autonomous vehicles.
If AI and 5G had a baby, its name would be “AV.” Autonomous vehicles are essentially data centers on wheels. If you look at them closely, you’ll notice they are loaded with multiple 4G LTE modems, because, with “brains in the device,” they require intelligence at the edge. That requires the rich and rapid movement of data that 5G is uniquely positioned to offer.
But the other thing that excites me about 5G is that it will not only be the protocol that launches a thousand new high-throughput applications and use cases like AVs, it will also drive important new low-bandwidth applications. Put another way, because of the new frequencies opened up by 5G, there will be new opportunities for innovation up and down the spectrum.
For example, on the low, or narrow-band side (think 900 MHz), there is a huge opportunity to provide connectivity for low-power, low-bandwidth IoT devices. Today this is a market addressed by a patchwork of proprietary connectivity technologies like LoRa and SigFox, but that will change with 5G as the new unifying standard.
Here, too, there is a potent AI play. A key IoT use case is in industrial devices, where low-cost sensors are put on machines to measure performance, enabling companies to avoid expensive fixes through predictive maintenance. These devices don’t depend on sharing lots of information with the cloud – they do their AI work locally, but on a small scale – so they don’t need a ton of bandwidth. They do, however, need reliable coverage and throughput in hard-to-reach places, and the 5G protocol is poised to deliver it.
With more and more AI happening on the edge, 5G holds the promise of being the unifying connectivity layer for a new generation of transformative technologies. One country aggressively pushing the exploration of this convergence is China, and the breakthroughs it is achieving are worth watching.
China works on a grand scale. We have traffic problems in the West – China’s are bigger. We have pollution problems here – China’s are worse. The success of China’s investments in smart city technologies depends on AI and a fast mobile communication infrastructure like 5G. China has already produced some of the biggest unicorns in AI. 5G networks will provide the backbone communication infrastructure to connect its autonomous vehicles, security cameras, and beyond.
I bring up China in the context of 5G and AI convergence to underscore the scale of the opportunity ahead. In IoT, we are talking about improving how billions of intelligent devices work and are maintained, transforming industrial processes along the way; with autonomous vehicles, we are talking about millions of smart vehicles conveying billions of people around the world – the future of travel.
And these are just two examples. I haven’t even mentioned the spectrum in between.
Ben Yu is a Managing Director at Sierra Ventures, a Silicon Valley firm that has invested $1.9 billion in enterprise and emerging technology companies over three decades.