Brace yourself. You’re going to be hearing about 5G for a while until you’ll actually get to enjoy the benefits. You might become bored or frustrated, but whatever you do, don’t underestimate it.
Don’t make the mistake that many do, seeing it as an incremental increase in speed like going from 3G to 4G. The numbers we’re talking about — 1000 times the capacity of 4G and 100 times the speed and devices able to be connected — will have a huge impact on society.
Imagine a small village going from having only horse-drawn carts to sports cars for all. It’s not just a faster way of getting around, it’s a game changer. It’s easier to do business further away when you don’t have to worry about your fish or vegetables going bad before you have a chance to sell them. And the greater exposure to other places, people and ways of life means you’re not stuck doing things one way because you don’t know any better.
But just as you have greater options than ever before, so does everyone else. So even if you’re content to sell the same wares in the same corner of the local market that you always have, that doesn’t mean your customers feel the same.
Of course, you can’t go from cart to sports car overnight — you need tarred roads, petrol stations, new traffic laws and more. You need to learn to drive and rethink your business strategy to account for the fact that everyone has cars now.
That’s the scenario we’re facing with 5G. It isn’t just a simple upgrade to connectivity speeds that you can implement once it’s commercially available. The increase in capacity and efficiency is going to open up more opportunities than we’re able to comprehend right now, and no-one will be left untouched.
What happens when every South African is able to enjoy unfettered, blazing fast internet — true always-on connectivity? Suddenly, every single one of your employees, customers, suppliers, stakeholders — you name it — has access to a whole world of opportunities, and the changing perspectives and expectations that come with that.
How prepared are you for that monumental shift in thinking?
What does a world powered by 5G look like? If you’re a frequent reader of tech or futurist sites (or this column), you’ll have a pretty good idea. It’s the promises of a fully digital society brought to life a thousand times over.
In a world that’s 1000 times faster, it’s hard to justify old ways of working — fulltime employees chained to their desks for 8 hours when your competitor is able to harness the best talent in the world at any time. It’s hard to justify a lack of knowledge when you have access to experts and specialists from every corner of the world and can share knowledge as easily as if they're face to face. It's hard to justify poor decision making when every object and interaction is a real-time source of information about what your customers want.
And it’s nearly impossible to compete in a world of high-speed cars when you’re still organising your business around horses.
The digital convergence enabled by 5G will no doubt lead to innovations we can’t conceive of right now, but we can already predict many of the improvements it will bring to the workplace — anytime and anywhere, collaborative, data-driven and truly global. Preparing for 5G means reimagining your organisation around these more flexible and democratic ways of working.
In theory, we know this. How many of us want to be Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or whichever revolutionary business leader we admire, blazing new trails and changing our industry forever? But how many of us are changing the way we do things today? How many of us are organising on the inside to be more entrepreneurial, more adaptable and more collaborative?
Many years ago, I found myself working on a large and very important project. This was in the old days when frame-relay networks, VSAT technology and okay-ish computing power was the status quo. I am not sure whether it was meant to be a motivational technique to get us to make magic happen but I do remember the project’s working motto: “If you can’t get it to work on this network speed, then you can’t do it at all. And if you can, imagine how much faster it will be when new technology comes in.” I do feel a little duped but guess what … we delivered the project and successfully so!
As we wait for technology that’s going to make 4G look like dial-up, I can’t help but remember our old saying. We weren’t organising around the next big tech. It’s not like we knew smartphones or 3G or fibre were coming. We were organising for immediate effectiveness and efficiency. Ultimately, it gave us a headstart — when those improvements in connectivity hit, we already had insights into how we could use it to better solve problems.
In 2016, Cameroon entered its infamous Internet shutdown, leaving its citizens with no way to go online for as long as 230 days at a time. Yet, some found ways to drive efficiency with their equivalent of a slow Internet connection (think kilobytes not megabytes). One entrepreneur created a USSD-based car-tracking application called Zoomed, which became a massive success.
The app supports features like voice surveillance and an AI-powered alarm, as well as offers data on fuel consumption and driving behaviour. Impressive, but now that Cameroon is once again online, imagine how many more use cases it could be used for. Imagine how well its capabilities will fit into a world where AI, machine learning and IoT are mainstream.
As you wait for the spectrum wars to come to an end, ask yourself how well your organisation’s current ways of working will fit into a high-speed, always-on world. Even if it’s not here yet you can re-imagine and re-organise policies, processes and strategies as if it is. What’s the worst-case scenario? You’ll be faster, smarter and more flexible than your competitors now and will be positioned to take advantage of 5G powered airwaves when they land!