5G use cases: Understanding near-term benefits for today's
mobile workers.

Jason Leigh, Research Manager – Mobility & 5G, IDC

As employees migrate away from fixed offices and corporate campuses in response to COVID-19 lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders, high-quality, reliable connectivity to support the mobile and work-from-home (WFH) worker is more important than ever. But success in this rapidly evolving "new normal” requires thinking beyond just connecting those employees to email and web browsing. 5G’s performance enhancements can provide both the baseline connectivity, as well as the launch platform for use cases that will enhance productivity, improve customer satisfaction, and expand access to talent. But rather than talk in futuristic, aspirational terms, how do some of those 5G use cases play out in the reality that is today’s world? 

This world is one where more and more employees find themselves regularly working in a formal home office, at a kitchen table, or even sitting on a child's bed while supervising remote learning. For some workers, their jobs have always existed outside the boundaries of a traditional enterprise connection. Regardless of the physical location of where the job responsibilities are performed, access to corporate tools and advancing functionality are table stakes for employee productivity.

That's where 5G enters. The next generation cellular technology stands poised to reshape what we think about connectivity performance and what we do with it, through immense leaps in bandwidth, latency and connection density performance. Despite headwinds from the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 saw the low-band variant of 5G scale to a semblance of nationwide coverage from all three major U.S. carriers. Yet, with most WFH employees and mobile workers having access to wired broadband or pervasive cellular service, 5G is simply another connection type, right? Hardly. 5G is just at the start of an evolutionary journey that will enable futuristic, "why-didn't-I-think-of-that?" use cases. While the journey will take time, there are a number of 5G use cases leveraging multi-band spectrum for the breadth and depth needed to make a near-term impact on job performance and productivity out of the gate.

5G security and business connectivity for the WFH employee.

Early in 2020, many companies were forced to make a near-instantaneous pivot to work-from-home mode. The success of that switch was made possible by the fact that a large majority of employees already had a home broadband connection to enable access to corporate resources. But now that companies have weathered that initial workplace transformation and are able to breathe and think strategically, having the employee shouldering the connectivity burden may not make complete sense. Piggybacking on the employee's personal broadband means competition. Work battles it out with education and leisure for connectivity resources. Who hasn't had a glitchy client video conference while a couple of remote learning lessons and a Netflix binge session are drawing home network resources in nearby rooms? Performance issues aside, relying on the employee's personal connectivity opens the corporate enterprise to greater security risks. Just think - how many employees have actually changed the password on their Wi-Fi router out of the box?

For the progressive company looking to provide a secondary, high-quality, business-only employee connection, using a 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) service to provide that dedicated business connectivity is appealing for a number of reasons. First, it can ease the deployment burden and timeline as there is no need to wait for a line crew to come and run a secondary physical connection. And, as 5G matures and coverage expands, fixed wireless access service is increasingly shifting to a self-install model, further reducing the time to get up and running. Additionally, with a dispersed workforce, using traditional wired broadband providers means working across multiple vendors, depending on the coverage footprint of each one. The ability to leverage a single vendor results in a more consistent installation experience for both the employee and company and may make it possible to leverage group pricing discounts. Finally, working with a 5G FWA provider for employee connectivity means that the employer can establish more robust, automated protocols for securing access to the corporate network. No more Wi-Fi routers with "12345" as the password.

Making field work more efficient.

Another promising use case for 5G connectivity lies not with the home-office employee, but with the mobile employee traversing from site to site. Some mobile repair technicians already have access to basic-AR functionality over an LTE connection, but a high-fidelity 5G connection can enable and enhance the experience further, resulting in faster repairs, fewer errors, and less time on site. Using a 5G-enabled smartphone or tablet—and eventually AR glasses/goggles—a junior technician who is unfamiliar with a piece of equipment or is having difficulty troubleshooting a problem, can leverage image-recognition-based repair protocols and transmit high-res photos for evidence capture. The improved throughput of a 5G connection, even in lower spectrum bands, can enable "see what I see" functionality for an "expert-on-demand" service where a seasoned employee can provide virtual guidance to dispersed junior staff spread across the service area.

5G—Start now for early benefits, lay the groundwork for future business performance gains for businesses, it is easy to become fixated on the bright, shiny, futuristic use cases for 5G that are years away from commercial viability. Yet, it is important not to overlook that 5G is here today and businesses can begin to take advantage of it for improving their workforce mobility operations. Investing in foundational 5G connectivity now establishes a springboard for additional innovation and digital transformation that will benefit a business for years to come.

Where is your business in its workforce mobility journey? And how does it measure up with your industry peers? Complete IDC’s Workforce Mobility Index Assessment to get tailored analysis for optimizing business outcomes in the post COVID-19 world.

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