The next generation of wireless technology is far from being
ready for prime time, but the nascent fifth generation, known as 5G, could
bring far-reaching benefits to numerous sectors, including the travel industry.
5G networks, which experts estimate are about five years
from reaching the ubiquity of current 4G networks, will enable large amounts of
data to travel at high speeds with delays imperceptible to humans.
The network will be high-bandwidth, meaning vast amounts of
data can be sent from point to point quickly, and low-latency, meaning it is
able to transfer data with almost no delay.
Its potential ranges from the relatively mundane (quickly
downloading a high-definition movie to a smartphone) to the revolutionary (a
doctor performing surgery from another part of the world utilizing robotics
connected via a network with no lag).
"The value of a low-latency, high-bandwidth wireless
network is limited only by your imagination," said Shelly Palmer, a
strategic consultant and CEO of the Palmer Group. "Where can you either
increase people's experiences -- so, make a better experience for your customer
-- or cut costs? Those are the things it's going to do. It's going to enhance
experiences and cut costs."
The road to 5G
The predecessors of 5G each enabled different levels of
The first generation was an analog system introduced in the
1980s that enabled mobile phone calls. It was followed in the 1990s by 2G, a
digital system that enabled services like text messaging.
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3G networks, introduced in the late 1990s, enabled internet connectivity.
4G, which was introduced in the late 2000s, enhanced that
connectivity, enabling users to access things like streaming audio and video.
Sanyogita Shamsunder, vice president of 5G ecosystems and innovation at
Verizon, said its faster speeds almost matched what users experienced with home
In general, she said, the networks have evolved to "do
more and more of the stuff that people are able to do in a stationary
environment like at home or in an office."
5G's higher bandwidth and lower latency will enable it to
better support things like virtual reality, augmented reality and gaming, she
said. It also holds great promise for industrial uses.
Noah Kimmel, IBM's transformation executive for travel and
transport, sees great potential for 5G supporting the "internet of things,"
because it will enable machines to communicate directly with each other.
"If we think about it like a highway, we're getting
wider highways with faster speed limits with more cars on them," Kimmel
said. "Historically, as we've looked at devices connecting, we've talked
about connecting people and then maybe connecting some devices and a lot of
one-way communication. 5G will enable us to have massive machine-to-machine
communication, which we don't really do a lot of today, so that has the
potential to be really revolutionary."
Palmer said 5G will be significantly faster than 4G, as
measured in megabits of data per second. A 4G network could offer up to around
20 megabits per second, he said. With 5G, that increases to 20 gigabits per
"They're in different classes," Palmer said.
As far as latency, the delay in the time it takes data to
travel from point A to point B, 4G had delays of about 50 to 60 milliseconds.
"That is very fast by human standards," Palmer
said. "It takes you somewhere between 400 and 500 milliseconds to blink
your eye, which is roughly half a second, so that's pretty quick."
5G, in contrast, will have a delay of around 1 or 2
milliseconds, which is imperceptible to humans.
"4G to 5G is -- hyperbole absolutely not being used --
a quantum leap," Palmer said. "It's literally an exponential increase
in capability in capacity and speed and latency."
Uses in travel
5G will undoubtedly have an impact on the travel industry at
both a consumer-facing and operational level.
Norm Rose, senior technology and corporate market analyst at
Phocuswright, said the enhanced connectivity possibilities offered by 5G
present an opportunity to travel advisors. For one thing, 5G will give agents a
better way to connect with travelers during their trips, something Rose has
advised they do for years now.
"If your traveler has a 5G connection, that means you
should be able to have [better] video calls with your traveler, you should be
able to be there with them, assisting them along the way," Rose said. "I
think that's the opportunity for 5G with the traditional travel agency
community: to extend that relationship throughout all elements and all parts of
Kimmel said 5G has clear applications in the car-rental
sector, where suppliers will likely introduce self-driving cars.
"Autonomous driving becomes significantly safer when
cars can talk to each other," Kimmel said. With 5G, "it's not just
using cameras, but it's communication between them, and that will change
A car renters' fuel, mileage and any damage to the vehicle
will likely be instantly communicated from the vehicle to the company. And if a
customer gets, say, a flat tire, rather than the customer calling the rental
company, the rental company will be able to call them because the car will
instantaneously alert the company of any issues.
Palmer said 5G will greatly improve cars that offer driver
assistance. In addition to making them safer, it will also likely make the
technology less expensive.
For example, he said, he recently owned an Audi S7, which
offers driver assistance. Someone backed into one of his headlights. It cost
around $4,600 to replace, because the headlight wasn't just a headlight -- it
was also a computer and sensor array used to help the car drive itself. But
when 5G is ubiquitous, car makers could replace that expensive setup with
And because 5G has such low latency, the actual computing
can take place in the cloud, communicating instantaneously with the car.
That same theory can be applied to other applications, such
as having robots deliver room service or baggage. Verizon's Shamsunder said
that if the actual computing to run the robot can take place in the cloud, as
opposed to having to house a computer within the robot itself, it drives down
At sea, 5G networks could be placed on cruise ships,
enhancing operations and the onboard consumer experience. Shamsunder said
different business models are emerging, and it's unclear who would actually
place the network on a ship -- a carrier or a cruise line, for example -- but
ships with 5G are definitely a possibility.
Right now, Palmer said, a common "fantasy" is
seamless travel: A car service picks up a business traveler and takes them to
the airport, where their luggage is automatically unloaded and put on a plane.
The traveler arrives in destination, luggage follows them to a transport, and
they are taken to the hotel. There, the traveler's phone would know their room
number, and they enter via keyless entry. The process takes place in reverse
for their trip home.
"That would be really hard right now, the way the
hotels are wired," Palmer said. "It would be really tough the way the
world is wired."
But smartphones able to use 5G will likely have transmitters
that essentially announce their owner's arrival and location to the 5G network,
making the above scenario possible. Palmer said it would have to be done
transparently, but 5G opens a world of possibility to personalize travelers'
From an operational perspective, in addition to the
possibility of less-expensive robots to complete some tasks, 5G will make it
easier for efficiencies to be realized.
For example, Palmer said, if a hotel were able to use 5G to
track guests, they might notice they tend to leave the gym and head to their
room without using communal shower facilities near the gym. They could make
changes to that space to make it more useful, depending on how they interpret
the data. For example, either making it a cleaner and more appealing area or
eliminating it altogether if they determine people are just more likely to
return to their room if it's nearby.
To Palmer, faster and more reliable cellphone service is the
least exciting of the possibilities 5G will bring, whereas its applications
with low-latency communication and giving machines the ability to talk to one
another offer far more possibilities.
"For the travel industry, I don't think there's a need
to do anything more than pay close attention to the evolution of consumer 5G
devices and their deployment," he said.
But the industrial uses of 5G, as they are developed, are of
far more interest.
As the technology is implemented, Palmer urges the industry
to ask: What does it mean to be in the travel business in a 5G world.
"Not how. What," he said. "Because 'how' is
plumbing. What it means to be in the travel industry, what it means to be a
hotel chain, what it means to be a transportation system in a 5G world? That
question has to be answered first."