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 mobile communications.

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 internet connections.

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 second.

"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 the trip."

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 traffic patterns."

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 inexpensive sensors. 

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 costs significantly.

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' experiences.

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."


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