5G is inching closer to becoming a reality for many people, and there’s no question it will make devices faster, smarter and more connected.
But talk about what that technology will enable often sounds like something out of a science fiction film: driverless cars, the internet of things, smart cities, the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
For months, Verizon (VZ) has been inviting leaders from various industries to test possible applications of 5G in specialized labs across the country. Widespread consumer uses of the technology, such as 5G-enabled smartphones, are still relatively far off.
But in a new partnership with industrial manufacturer Corning (GLW), Verizon aims to demonstrate the real life impact of the technology right now, by deploying and testing the effects of a 5G network in one of Corning (GLW)’s largest manufacturing facilities. The companies will work together to test existing theories and develop new solutions for how 5G can make manufacturing more efficient, effective and safe.
“We’ve gone from a stage of imagining, ‘Could 5G be real?’ To really finding ourselves in a place where we’re seeing 5G not just in our labs,” Tami Erwin, CEO of Verizon Business Group, told CNN Business. “We took it out of the labs and actually put it into production.”
Testing the technology in this way means confronting the imperfections and unknowns of a working factory environment — large and heavy equipment moving around, humans interacting with machines. The experiment is expected to prove how 5G can make manufacturing more efficient, effective and safe.
5G is nearly 100 times faster than 4G, and would allow a huge number of devices to be connected all at one time, something earlier networks couldn’t handle. That means devices can communicate almost instantly with the servers that control them and with one another.
So in a factory setting, it might be possible to replace the humans driving materials around the plant with self-driving cars, according to Claudio Mazzalli, Corning’s vice president of technology. And because the cars would sense other equipment and vehicles in the facility, he said, they could move around more quickly and with fewer errors and less energy, helping the company cut costs.
The new network technology also has the capacity to process significantly more data. For example, Mazzalli said this will allow the company to do real-time video monitoring of goods in production, which he expects will help to ensure higher quality.
The Corning factory deployed 5G about three months ago, but Mazzalli said it’s too early to tell what financial impact it will have.
“As artificial intelligence starts using this data and improving our process, making our processes more efficient, that’s when we’re going to start seeing the value,” Mazzalli said. “We are not speculating right now what’s the financial impact of this to this plant, but I can tell you that this question is a very important question for us. We don’t want to start just adding devices everywhere if we don’t see the value.”
The automation and new data collection that 5G will enable also creates new concerns, particularly over security. As companies generate and make use of so much more data, protecting that information becomes even more crucial. For Verizon’s part, Erwin said the company works to build both security and privacy into its networks proactively.
And Mazzali said 5G can, in some ways, make information more secure. Today, machines in a plant are connected to the company’s servers in a variety of ways, including WiFi or through an internet cable. 5G, he said, “allows all of that to be in one single network. And once you put everything into a single network, you have your hands around it and you control that better, you can provide more security to that.”
Verizon’s Erwin said she hopes the effort will help Verizon gain an advantage over other wireless providers in scoring enterprise customers as more companies begin to examine the ways 5G could transform their businesses.
And it might need the boost — Verizon has invested slightly less than its main competitor AT&T (T) in 5G infrastructure. Verizon is spending $17 billion annually in capital expenses to roll out 5G, compared to AT&T (T)’s $20 billion, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data (AT&T (T) is the parent company of WarnerMedia).
“There isn’t a company in the world that doesn’t want to talk to Verizon right now because they understand the power and potential of 5G,” Erwin said.