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Why the coronavirus response may unleash 5G

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the biggest news in tech was the ongoing -- and controversial -- rollout of the 5G network. First, there was the ban on Chinese companies, prohibiting them from being involved with 5G infrastructure in the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Then articles started pointing out that the threat profile for 5G was an order of magnitude higher than that of existing telecom protocols.

The coronavirus outbreak, though, has forced some analysts to reassess the value of 5G. While security concerns remain, the network has been invaluable in the fight against the pandemic.

Crisis? What crisis?

COVID-19 has dominated the news for the past few months, so it’s not surprising that some big 5G announcements flew under the radar. Despite the outbreak, China has been quietly pressing ahead with its implementation of the technology, and in early March announced that telecom carriers will be pushing on with plans to build at least 500,000 5G base stations in 2020.

The U.S. is doing the same. Also in March, the White House issued a national strategy to confront the security challenges that 5G represents and call for international cooperation in the “global development and deployment of 5G infrastructure.” 

In some ways, these developments are not surprising. The pandemic has disrupted business in many countries, but it hasn’t stopped it. Organizations are still preparing themselves for 5G, rolling out 5G-enabled payment processing software and workplace collaboration systems. In fact, employees transitioning to remote work for an unspecified time has focused attention on the value of the 5G network in facilitating off-site functionality. 

5G, big data and the fight against corona

There are some more direct ways the 5G network is helping in the fight against COVID-19. Forbes recently reported on the ways that artificial intelligence, data science and the internet of things are being leveraged to track cases of the virus, deliver medical supplies and even develop new drugs to beat it. Much of this coverage, however, overlooks the fact that AI systems in particular rely on the increased speed of the 5G network. 

The vast majority of organizations using these advanced systems to contribute to the fight against coronavirus make use of cloud services to handle the massive amounts of data they are working with and to reduce website maintenance costs. 5G connections are therefore invaluable, allowing huge amounts of data to be quickly exchanged with cloud providers.

At a broader level, these developments point to another fact that has been overlooked: While the current crisis will have huge negative impacts for many businesses, others will likely profit from it. This includes companies who were already engaged in developing AI-driven systems for tracking users, those who offer chatbots to automatically share information and those in the cybersecurity market.

The challenges

Of course, security concerns about the 5G network have not been silenced altogether. The 5G ecosystem has inherited some vulnerabilities from 4G, and there are still significant concerns about whether the security industry can keep up with 5G. Given how valuable the speed and capacity of the protocol is proving though, there has been a subtle shift in the way that the rollout is being viewed. Many analysts have belatedly realized the potential of 5G and have started to think about how it can be implemented safely, rather than if it can.

This shift in thinking contains two major elements. It debunks some of the myths surrounding the new technology, including the absurd idea that the current outbreak was caused by 5G. The White House’s 5G strategy is a welcome development in this regard and shows that the U.S. is still willing to provide leadership in developing cybersecurity standards.

The second line of thinking has been a renewed focus on a smooth transition to 5G. The fact that many organizations have been forced to move to remote work has proved to many that -- eventually, if not now -- they will need to make an investment in providing 5G functionality for all of their employees. Tech and finance companies are leading the way with adoption, and other industries will need to follow suit if they intend to survive. This means rethinking each element of business strategy, from R&D budgets to markup calculations, but such a move is starting to be seen as a necessity rather than an optional extra.

The bottom line

Given all these developments, it’s tempting to conclude that when the history of the current crisis is written, there will be a small but important footnote: The COVID-19 pandemic sparked 5G’s coming of age. Though data science has been transforming the IT sector for some years now, it might have taken this crisis to highlight the necessity for increasing our data processing capacity.

In other words, the pandemic presents opportunities as well as difficulties. Once organizations realize the economic benefits of remote working, they may be hesitant to go back to in-house employees. If AI systems win the race to develop a vaccine, their potential may finally be widely recognized. And as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s plan for a U.S.-friendly 5G network continues to develop during the crisis, the nation may find itself in an enviable position --  having the first secure 5G network.

About the Author

Sam Bocetta is a retired defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, a defense analyst and a freelance journalist. He specializes in finding radical solutions to "impossible" ballistics problems and covers trends in IoT security, encryption, cryptography, cyberwarfare and cyberdefense.

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