This article was adapted from Climate Tech Weekly, a free newsletter focused on climate technologies.
Grab your mobile phone because I’d like to begin this essay by conducting some random reader research. It involves peeking at your cellular data connection to see what network it’s riding on. As I wind my way up San Francisco’s East Bay via Amtrak while writing this article, I’m receiving a strong 5G signal.
What about you? While I can’t say the same when I roam close to home in New Jersey, the latest deployment of 5G wireless networks has accelerated faster than expected over the past year — especially in China and North America — to cover an estimated 2 billion people by the end of 2021. According to equipment provider Ericsson, which published its latest update on adoption in November, 5G will reach 75 percent of the world’s population and 62 percent of global smartphone traffic by 2027.
What is this mysterious acronym? It stands for the "fifth generation" of broadband wireless, a technology that promises lower latency and higher capacity than the current generation (aka 4G). It is widely seen as a big catalyst for pushing the internet of things more mainstream and connecting all manner of devices along the way — from smart meters to agricultural sensors to next-generation industrial equipment.
Of course, Ericsson has a vested interest in telling us things are going great (after all, it sells wireless networking gear), but various business management consultancies are also talking up 5G’s accelerating adoption — and the potential for innovation it brings.
The opportunity to combine 5G technology, an explosion of connective devices, along with edge computing capabilities will drive a mosaic of innovative solutions that we can’t yet imagine.
Boston Consulting Group, for one, prognosticates that 5G deployments could contribute up to $1.7 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) and create as many as 4.6 million jobs — related to smart city platforms, connected vehicles, next-generation industrial applications and more. Researcher Gartner expects that adoption in tier-one cities could hit 60 percent by 2024.
What does that mean for sustainability professionals and climate techies? Another analysis by Ericsson suggests that 5G technologies could have a big impact in reducing emissions for four of the biggest-emitting sectors: power; transport; buildings; and manufacturing. The study suggests that at least 40 percent of the carbon reduction solutions deployed in the European Union by 2030, for example, will rely on fixed line and mobile connectivity.
Another analysis, this one by ABI Research, offers some specific examples of what’s possible. Automated, guided vehicles associated with smart manufacturing, for example, are 45 percent more productive than counterparts that don’t have that feature, with big implications for energy efficiency.
Ericsson’s own factory in Lewisville, Texas, which makes 5G equipment, is a model of what is possible. The site uses 24 percent less energy and 75 percent less indoor water than comparable buildings that haven’t been covered by 5G applications.
Telecommunications giant AT&T is also talking up 5G connectivity as key to next-generation industrial sustainability. The technology is one ingredient of its Connected Climate Initiative, an effort to help businesses collectively reduce emissions by a gigaton by 2035. Its partners include the likes of cloud powerhouse Microsoft, digital infrastructure provider Equinix and holding company Duke Energy, which is exploring how broadband services can help accelerate the transition to renewable energy. "If we can help our customers, and it is showing up in their reporting, that’s the win," AT&T’s director of sustainability operations, John Schulz, told me when we chatted about the effort.
Other glimpses of what’s possible can be seen in the work of the 5G Open Innovation Lab, which currently supports 30 "mixed stage" companies that are working on related solutions. A recently published case study details an agricultural solution that uses drones to collect information about apple orchards at a field laboratory in Snohomish, Washington in real time. The tests demonstrated a water reduction of 50 percent that was driven by analysis of those insights. "Solutions for ubiquitous connectivity need to scale vast geographies and rural locations around the world," noted Anthony Goonetilleke, an executive for one of the test partners, software firm Amdocs. "The opportunity to combine 5G technology, an explosion of connective devices, along with edge computing capabilities will drive a mosaic of innovative solutions that we can’t yet imagine."
As with any digital innovation, one development to watch closely is the potential energy consumption associated with 5G equipment. In September, Vodafone reported that early radio equipment upgrades it’s making in the United Kingdom are helping it realize average daily reductions of 43 percent in network energy consumption. But if 5G inspires the sorts of data traffic increases that some are predicting, the overall power associated with supporting all these wondrous applications will actually increase. The trick will be balancing and measuring that negative impact against all the positive emissions reductions 5G could enable.
Where do you see 5G playing a role in climate tech? Send your comments and ideas to [email protected].