Nathan Landale

The Technology for The Next Generation

5G and edge computing: What they are and why you should care
Computer, Gadget & Technology

5G and edge computing: What they are and why you should care

Abstract technology representation of Earth

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Picture our techscape before 2005 and then our technology environment today. We are living in a totally mobile-first world that relies on the fact that nearly everyone has a smartphone. Entire industries have changed, been enabled, and been disrupted, all because of the smartphone.

Each mobile G generation has changed our world. Substantially. Universally. So when we look at 5G now, which is just barely getting started, we’re looking at more than another telecom technology. We’re looking at the harbinger of another massive change to the world we live in. 

How we got to 5G: A look back at 2G, 3G, and 4G

2G ushered in texting. 3G brought us apps and app stores. 4G brought us our mobile-first world.

In 2005, the Palm Treo used 2G to communicate data with the cellular system. Apps were installed by plugging the Treo into a PC or Mac and transferring them via a cable. Data speeds were 40-230Kbps (kilobits per second). You could, theoretically push that to 384Kbps with edge service, but I certainly didn’t get that performance on the highway. So in practice, 2G got you texting and some MMS pictures and, if you were lucky, some very slow-loading web pages if the site had mobile super-plain versions available.

Fast forward to summer 2008, Apple released the iPhone 3G and the Apple App Store. With the App Store came one-click installation, allowing everyone to manage their own apps — and apps thrived. 3G allowed speeds of 384Kbps to 2Mbps (megabits per second), which made it practical to download an app on the phone. Though web searches were fairly slow, they functioned. 3G also provided better positioning data, which made apps like Uber possible. Smartphones were being used but were still not fully mainstream.

Jump to 2012 when Apple released the iPhone 5. It’s running 4G/LTE (LTE is a version of 4G). This is when everything changed. People stopped looking where they were going when they walked, and instead began to stare into their phone screens. People stopped interacting with family members at the dinner table and were instead glued to their phone screens. With the jump in speed from a max of about 2Mbps to speeds between 100Mbps (while in motion) and 1Gbps (when stationary), everyone had broadband in their pockets. This enabled HD video, highly interactive mobile games, social media at all levels, video conferencing, and pretty much everything else we rely on with our phones today.

In truth, the little Palm Treo was still a smart phone. So, it’s not the actual phone or the apps that have enabled radical digital transformation, but instead, mobile transmission speed.

What is 5G? (and why it’s special)

5G has already been here for a few years. Consumers are just beginning to see benefits, but businesses and industries have already begun another generational transformation due to the availability of 5G. I will discuss what 5G is, what it can do for us, and how this new generation of mobile data is transforming the world. There are four technological advances that 5G offers: transmission speed, latency, robustness, and density.

Transmission speed

We talked about transmission speed earlier in this special report. It’s how fast data can move up and down the pipes. In practical terms, Verizon says that 5G offers typical speeds that are up to 10 times faster than 4G. Think of it as having better-than-Wi-Fi speeds everywhere you go.


Latency is a different thing. It’s not how big your pipe is (as in how much data it can hold). It’s more about how fast you can turn that pipe on and off.

Most computer users learned about latency back when we started playing first person shooters. Sometimes a shot was dead to rights. But sometimes the shot wouldn’t connect and suddenly the display would update, with a target standing five feet to the left or right. That’s latency in action. What users saw on screen wasn’t exactly what was happening in the server.

Now, think about latency in self-driving cars. It’s rush hour on the 101 and suddenly, there’s an accident. You want all the cars heading to the accident to immediately learn of it so they can begin breaking. If it takes 2-3 seconds for that information to pass from the scene of the accident to the other cars on the road, in can mean disaster.

A car driving at 60 miles per hour (6.56 km/h) can travel about 264 feet (80.47 meters) in 2-3 seconds. That’s about 17 car lengths. A reaction time of 17 car lengths could be deadly.

With 5G, latency will drop to about 1/10th of what it is with 4G. Over time, that’s expected to improve even more. All that is to say network responsiveness can be much faster.


Have you ever had a conversation with a friend when the signal glitches in and out? Or find that your Internet connection works one minute, and then it’s gone the next? These problems are caused when the connection between your mobile device and the network fails.

Most of the time, though, the failure isn’t particularly long-lasting. Connectivity might drop off as you drive into a tunnel or you walk into a room with too many metallic signal obstructions. Unfortunately, at least with 4G, even a fraction of a second’s interruption can cause the network to disconnect.

5G improves on that. It is better able to withstand fluctuations and therefore better able to sustain a stable connection, even in less-than-ideal conditions. Technologies like Massive MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) and beamforming help sustain signals, even in very crowded environments.

In this context, the signal is more robust. Additionally, 5G is able to reconnect faster due to the prevalence of edge computing (more on that in a bit) and better handover protocols.


Verizon says that the theoretical maximum number of operational 4G devices in a square kilometer (38% of a square mile) is about 10,000. By contrast, 5G should allow as many as a million connected devices in the same space.

On some level, having that many networked devices around us is pretty daunting, but I have more than 50 connected devices just in my home. We do like our gadgets. And, as self-driving cars and other Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices proliferate, we’ll have more and more. Being able to support as many connected devices as necessary will be key to being able to count on 5G connectivity when it’s deployed.

After all, the last thing you want to hear your car say when you ask it to drive you somewhere is,”I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Power at the edge

There’s a lot more about 5G that gives it its superpowers.

Instead of relying solely on large, high-powered cell towers (as 4G does), 5G will run off both those towers and a ton of small cell sites that can be clustered together. This is how 5G achieves its population density.

5G is also supposed to be more energy efficient. As such, the communications component of IoT devices won’t drain as much power, resulting in longer battery life for connected devices.

There’s also a ton of AI and machine learning in 5G implementations. 5G nodes and interface devices deployed on the edge, away from central hubs. They utilize AI and machine learning to analyze communications performance, and use AI to bandwidth-shape communications, to wring as much performance out of the hardware as possible.

You’re familiar with the term “cloud computing.” We’ve all used cloud services, services that run on a server someplace rather than on our desktop computers or mobile devices. The cloud, of course, isn’t really a cloud. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others operate massive data centers packed with thousands upon thousands of servers. Soft and fluffy, the cloud is not.

But we call it the cloud because it’s all the computing that takes place in that amorphous space between all our PCs and mobile devices. Back in the day, when IT folks drew network diagrams, that connectivity in the middle — the stuff the IT folks themselves didn’t manage — was drawn as a simple cloud. And so we got the term “cloud computing.”

All of this brings us to the concept of edge computing. Think of it this way: if it’s not in the middle, it’s at the edge. It’s an oversimplification, but edge computing describes the practice of placing a ton of computing power at the very edge of the network, at the point of impact with the application. In a factory, that would be computing located right in or near the factory. In the case of self-driving cars, that would be a boatload (er, a carload) of computing power right inside the vehicle itself, as well as more that might live along the roadways and intersections.

Why is edge computing important? The answer is simple: physics. It takes time for bits to travel from the point of an application (say, the sensors on the front of your car) all the way to the data center, and back. Each packet might jump across many networks, traverse geographical zones, and pass through a range of firewalls.

With today’s networks, that process is quick. But it’s not “you’re about to crash into that car that just suddenly stopped in front of you” quick. Edge processing puts enough processing power, often assisted by AI and machine learning, right near where it’s needed. Sure, sometime later in the day, the edge servers might upload their processing history to the cloud, but right at the moment that something is about to go haywire, the edge gear is there to step in, in real time — and before it’s too late.

Much of this is doable with 5G for a variety of reasons. We talked about improved transmission speed, latency, robustness, and density above. 5G pulls that off by replacing cell towers with lots of little nodes. As such, the 5G connection is likely to be far closer to the edge than most 4G connections.

5G in use

5G has a lot of enterprise and productivity applications. But it also provides benefits to smartphone users overall. A 5G-enabled phone offers faster download and upload speeds, improved connectivity, enhanced streaming and gaming, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) support, facilitation of IoT devices, energy efficiency, global roaming, enhanced voice calls, and support for new services and applications.

To give you a better feel for 5G in use beyond smartphones, we’ll look at five very different companies and how they’re using 5G now to improve their operations and offerings.

Car wash systems provider

Cradlepoint is a 5G networking gear provider that’s a subsidiary of Ericsson. James Weaver, Senior Director at Cradlepoint told us about one of their users, Motor City Wash Works.

Motor City Wash Works is a manufacturer of automated car washes that offers a turn-key as-a-service operating model. Managing costs from time-to-operation and maintenance are key to generating profitability. Motor City built its car wash infrastructure to automate and monitor everything from the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) controlling all the motor operations, point of sale (POS) systems, and security cameras.

Motor City found that the slower installation time and lesser reliability of conventional connectivity got in the way of making their business model work. To solve those issues, the company chose a solution that included 5G cellular in order to gain its rapid deployment, agility, performance, and reliability benefits.

Motor City is running lighter edge applications on the routers not only for better latency, but also for redundancy and resiliency. . Because Motor City runs an as-a-service model, its goal is to discover and correct operations and network problems before the car wash owners even know about them.

Think about it: car washes seem benign, but if you were in a car inside a car wash and those giant robots were to run amok, it wouldn’t be pretty. Being able to manage those devices automatically and in real time can protect customers, their vehicles, and the car wash’s reputation.

Using edge computing, Motor City Wash Works also processes, translates, and transmits industrial automation data to each car wash management team via dashboards. They are able to securely encrypt and protect their customers’ credit card data while maintaining integrations with a number of POS platforms and operate seamlessly with reliable connectivity, even if total communication loss were to occur.

Field service operations 

Another company using 5G technology is field service software provider FieldCircle. Yogesh Choudhary, cofounder and CEO of FieldCircle describes how his company relies on the robustness benefits of 5G.

“For me, one major problem it solves is that it enables applications to function even when there’s limited or no internet connectivity,” Choudhary told ZDNET. “This has been gold for testing products that need to continue working in remote environments such as field operations or remote monitoring solutions, which has greatly benefitted our FieldCircle clients and improved our overall reputation with them.”

Custom applications with better network performance

TechAhead is a company that builds mobile app solutions for clients. ZDNET spoke to Vikas Kaushik, TechAhead’s CEO. His company is employing edge computing and 5G to improve mobile app development procedures. With 5G, the company can now give real-time data synchronization, smooth remote collaboration, and what he describes as “incredibly quick content delivery” within the apps TechAhead provides to clients.

Kaushik says, “We are resolving the issue of latency and data bottlenecks that frequently hindered user experiences in the past through this integration. We can provide our clients with lightning-fast app performance and unbroken connectivity thanks to 5G and edge computing, guaranteeing their users enjoy a positive and interesting experience.”

He told ZDNET, “With the help of this technology, we are now able to construct high-quality, data-intensive apps that go above and beyond client expectations.”

Supplier of life-giving coffee 

Home Grounds is a critical infrastructure provider (and by “critical infrastructure,” I mean that they provide coffee beans and brewing gear). There is no higher calling.

Alex Mastin, CEO and founder of Home Grounds told ZDNET, “I’ve noticed a real difference in connectivity between employees who have access to 5G, and those who are still waiting for it to be implemented in their area. Those who are using 5G and edge computing are finding it increases the ease and efficiency of their work.”

Coffee also increases the ease and efficiency of work. Just sayin’. And yes, I can quit anytime I want. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

Mastin reports, “Using a combination of 5G and edge computing has been beneficial for collecting, analyzing, and storing data, and we’ve been able to use these insights to enhance our business, segmenting our audience more effectively, and tailoring our marketing accordingly. It has also supported personalization, which has made a significant difference to our performance. Another added benefit is that it supports security, which is a major priority for our business.”

Supply chain logistics 

We also had the opportunity to speak with Orlando Remédios, cofounder and CEO of Sensefinity, an IoT company providing end-to-end visibility for complex logistic processes, from monitoring production to tracking the goods in real-time through global supply chains. Sensefinity provides real-time visibility, alarms, and predictive analytics.

Remédios told ZDNET that 5G and edge services in the logistics industry allow for real-time visibility in internal supply chain and logistics operations.

“5G allows for industrial companies or large sites like sea ports to create their own private networks where they can massively deploy IoT-connected devices,” said Remédios. This goes to our discussion earlier about the increase in device density supported by 5G.

Remédios also told us that all these connected IoT devices help, “Identify critical assets in supply-chain operations and supervise them in real-time, thus providing real-time visibility at a low price-point that is only possible via the deployment of 5G networks.”

Self-driving cars

Self-driving cars are a big application of 5G. Personally, I’m not sure I ever want to give up the steering wheel and gas pedal, but with aging being “the top global demographic trend,” self-driving cars promise to provide older folks with agency far beyond the time their reflexes diminish to the point where they can’t safely drive on their own. But, we won’t really be able to usher in the era of cars that drive us until 5G is widely deployed.

Either way, buckle your seat belts.

To 6G and beyond

In addition to 5G, you’re going to start hearing some vendors start talking about 6G, because of course they will.

Here’s the main detail you need to keep in mind: 5G is for the 2020s, and 6G is expected in the 2030s. 6G is the logical extension of the idea that if we have good technology today, we should be working on better technology for tomorrow.

Nothing about 6G is official or even definite. While labs are experimenting with future technologies, 6G isn’t close to real. That said, it’s expected that 6G will offer improved bandwidth, maybe even to the terabit/second level. Likewise, expect latency to be reduced even more than 5G offers, and expect support for yet more device density.

If AR/VR and self-driving vehicles actually become practical, 6G is probably the technology that will take those applications from functional curiosities to the mainstream. Finally, 6G may increase coverage area even more, even to the point of going underwater or bringing networking to IoT devices located outside Earth’s atmosphere.

But like I said, 6G is all very speculative. If you want to know more, be sure to read the other excellent articles in this ZDNET Special Feature. There’s a lot of really good information presented on a wide range of topics by some of our best experts on the future of connectivity.

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