• Through COVID-19, connectivity has become an even bigger part of critical infrastructure, helping people in an unprecedented way work, study and socialize online.
  • Looking forward, governments need to do more to harness the potential of 5G if we’re to emerge stronger from the pandemic and to tackle greater challenges such as climate change.
  • These are two of my takeaways from the World Economic Forum’s three-part 5G Outlook Series, to which Ericsson, as part of a multi-stakeholder working group, contributed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how connectivity has become an even bigger part of critical infrastructure, helping people in an unprecedented way to work, study and socialize online. Last year, consumer use of fixed broadband increased by an average of two and half hours per day, and on mobile by one hour.

In its first 5G Outlook Series report, the World Economic Forum highlighted several activities behind that increased usage: in healthcare, a 490% increase in telemedicine urgent care visits; in socialization a 75% increase in online gaming; and in retail, online transactions were up 74% globally. In the world of work, Ericsson’s Mobility Report showed 60% of white-collar workers increased their usage of video calls.

Despite the sudden and unprecedented changes in traffic patterns and demand, the networks performed well, with operators generally providing enough network performance. This strong performance was reflected in users’ perceptions, with 83% claiming ICT helped them a lot, in one way or another, to cope with lockdowns.

Without the investments made in 4G and 5G, none of the uses including telemedicine, video calls and gaming could have been delivered to the extent seen through the pandemic.

With vaccines rolling out, there is a risk that society seeks to pick-up from before the pandemic took hold. However, it is obvious the world cannot move forward by returning to the pre-pandemic status quo. If we are to emerge strongly from COVID-19 and tackle greater challenges, such as climate change, then not only do we need to continue the digital evolution, but we need to accelerate it with 5G at the forefront.

5G at the forefront of digital evolution

Governments have a long way to go in helping rollout 5G if we want to use it to address economic and environmental challenges, while mitigating inequality. With attributes such as high speed and low latency, and as an enabler of other technologies such as the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, 5G is designed to be a platform upon which enterprises can take forward efficient, low-cost, low emission uses.

This can be seen in factory settings, for example, where 5G uses gather in the form of automated heating, ventilation, air conditioning, light control and building management. Many of these 5G uses, the economic and environmental benefits derived from them, are explored in Ericsson’s 5G Smart Factory.

In a similar vein within agriculture, there are several 5G use cases whereby the use of sensors and other connected devices allow farmers to produce more output whilst consuming less scarce natural resources, such as water.

One such example offered is Agroscope, a centre for agricultural research in Switzerland. The centre has deployed real-time sensors that measure soil moisture, crop growth, weather data and animal movements. These sensors have allowed farmers to decrease the amount of nitrogen fertilizer use by roughly 10%, without any corresponding loss in crop yield.

Broadband and 5G, as the European Commission makes clear, lay the foundation for the green and digital transformation of the economy, regardless if we talk about transport and energy, healthcare and education, or manufacturing and agriculture.

The benefits of 5G

Few countries have been as quick as Switzerland to see the potential in 5G and commit. In 2019, Swisscom switched on the first European commercial 5G network, and today 90% of the population is covered by 5G.

Now they will see benefits in economic competitiveness with enterprises gaining first-mover advantages, in educational attainment with online learning strengthened through VR, and they’ll see benefits environmentally through reduced emissions. 5G is scalable, and if other countries were to use Switzerland as a template, the global benefits would be enormous.

With rewards, however, come risks. One such risk is the threat of exacerbated inequality, through varied adoption of digital technology. For example, by the end of 2026, Ericsson forecast 3.5 billion 5G subscriptions globally with North America accounting for 80% of 5G subscriptions and sub-Saharan Africa with 5%.

Given that, by 2030, we forecast that two-thirds of the world’s workforces will depend on 5G connectivity, it is critical that we work towards closing the digital skills divide and promote an agenda which ensures digital inclusion, a point echoed in the report series.

Governments as 5G catalysts

Governments have a long way to go in helping rollout 5G. As the report argues: "Where governments can work with the communications industry to defray network roll-out costs, nations are more likely to see widespread 5G benefits across the economy sooner. Democratizing 5G in this manner is a significant way of avoiding a 5G-driven digital divide."

More concretely, instead of focusing on capturing limited spectrum fees and dragging out rollouts, governments need to see themselves as investment catalysts. They need to focus on the bigger economic and environmental benefits which come from spectrum being released quickly, supply maximized and getting enterprises up and running on 5G.

The spectrum, which is the system that carries data from user equipment to cellular base stations to the data’s endpoint, also needs to be assigned in a manner that incentivizes wide and rapid deployment to ensure equitable access. Furthermore, barriers such as permitting delays, sighting rules, harmonizing radiofrequency exposure values need to go. Doing this will help accelerate the uptake of 5G.

It's clear that COVID-19 demonstrated the enormous value of our digital infrastructure. If society is to emerge stronger from the pandemic and tackle greater challenges, then governments need to act more like catalysts and unleash the potential of 5G.