With widespread 5G looming only a few short years away, it is worth taking a close look at what it is, what it will mean to enterprises, and why it is such an important technological development.

To understand 5G, it helps to determine what it isn’t, as much as what it is. It is not a new generation of radio technology, which is a common misperception. You won’t be seeing any tower construction or trenching as we “build” the 5G infrastructure.

What it is, then, is a way of bringing everything wireless together into a common space. That requires harmonization – or orchestration, if you prefer – to consolidate all this and make sure that it works as intended. The harmony/orchestration description is an appropriate one, because like a good conductor, 5G’s role is to make sure that all the instruments and voices blend perfectly to deliver a sweet, sweet sound.

And to continue that metaphor, there are a lot of different instruments involved in the coming 5G performance. All the various networks and radio technologies, licensed and unlicensed, will continue to have their place. It is the way that they will be managed by highly intelligent systems that will yield the benefits of increased capacity, high reliability, symmetrical uplink and downlink speeds, superior machine-to-machine communications, and remote control capabilities.

Many of the details remain to be hammered out. Standards are not yet complete, so we are a long way off from the ability to delve into 5G’s finer points. But we can provide a big picture view for now.

Riding the waves: the world of wireless

In the world of wireless, data is transmitted via radio waves. These waves are split into bands or ranges of different frequencies. Each band is slotted for a different type of communication, from maritime to public safety to radio broadcasts, TV broadcasts, mobile data, etc. What 5G does is bring any and all of those together and use and orchestrate them in such a way that data is delivered in a meaningful and useful way.

When autonomous vehicles or medical devices are connected to the network, reliability becomes a life-or-death matter.

We won’t see major changes in how those different parts of the spectrum are received and retransmitted. It is all about the command and control mechanisms to bring them together, with the magic taking place behind the curtain.

5G will perform that magic via countless simultaneous connections across existing radio access technologies. It will also carefully connect fiber-rich wired systems with an overlay of “surface systems” that will be able to communicate with each other vastly more efficiently.

To a large degree 5G will be – and must be – as reliable as the wired network. To deliver on its promise of extreme mobile broadband and massive and ultra-reliable machine communications requires a level of reliability we have not seen in wireless communications. When autonomous vehicles or medical devices are connected to the network, reliability becomes a life-or-death matter.

It is all about the harmony of many different types of networks, architectures, and radio waves. Some may be low on the spectrum, with long reach but low bandwidth. Others are high, with very high bandwidth, but only at short distances. What 5G will do is enable providers to combine these, whether or not they have the advantage of being contiguous on the spectrum, in order to offer more capacity and speed from point A to point B and beyond.

The importance of virtualization

This will be accomplished through a vast increase in intelligence at the edges of the network, with virtualization – in the form of NFV (network functions virtualization) – a key element of the advancements. With virtualization, providers can possibly deliver services far more quickly, setting up and tearing down circuits almost instantly, with those circuits in operation for only as long as an enterprise needs them.

Enterprise networks will surely become part of the grand design in 5G. Exactly how is yet to be determined, but the networks that we look at today as private will not be completely private. Enterprises may not give up control, but in a 5G world the macro network must be able to interface and work with a “private” network, though in a controlled and secure way.

Despite the hurdle of not-yet-established standards, you will increasingly see examples of 5G capabilities being incorporated into carrier services and communications equipment and devices. You’ve seen some already, such as the ability to start or turn off your car with your smartphone or to use it to lock your car doors remotely in Chicago if your plane arrives in Dallas and you suddenly remember you left them unlocked. The difference is that those capabilities are now apps operating over the Internet, as opposed to travelers on the much more robust 5G highway.