Over the past two decades, four generations of mobile networks have changed how we live, shop and talk to each other. But the next-generation wireless networks, 5G, which can achieve data transmission speeds 10 to 100 times faster than we're currently used to, could quickly change the status quo again. 5G has big implications for everything from gaming and shopping to advancing the promise of smart buildings, appliances and cars. One industry it could alter dramatically is healthcare.
What would that look like? The outlines of that picture will soon start emerging at GE Research headquarters in Niskayuna, New York, where GE has partnered with AT&T to bring 5G connectivity to GE's "digital test bed" at the facility's Forge Lab.
Scientists are already using the lab to design and test industry applications like instant inventory management for warehouses, sensor-embedded intelligent wind farms, and augmented reality devices that could give jet maintenance crews contextual information about the state of an engine and allow them to access remote experts for advice. Healthcare is the next step. "The power of reliable, robust sub-6 and 5G+ networks will transform healthcare by bringing care more directly to the patient," says Eric Tucker, GE Research's senior director of technical products. "Imagine what will be possible when millions of medical devices and diagnostics tools can be reliably connected to help doctors deliver faster, more effective patient care."
Take wearable sensors and medical devices. With more wireless devices replacing the monitors that have historically tethered patients to their hospital beds, a patient could potentially recover at home rather than in a hospital room. Rapid data transmission would allow a doctor to monitor their condition and respond to changes in ways not available today.
Faster and connected networks could also help hospitals in what's known as asset management. Tracking down a wheelchair left on the wrong floor, for example, can take valuable minutes that doctors and nurses aren't spending addressing patient care. Sensors embedded in that piece of equipment would allow it to be located immediately.
And then there's the burgeoning field of precision health. 5G would enable faster data collection, and faster data means more precise data, which can be analyzed more effectively by networks of experts and improve outcomes. It will help enable teleconsultation and decision-making augmented by artificial intelligence. All that becomes crucial as more medicine is practiced outside the hospital.
How does 5G work? The 4G LTE networks we've used since around 2010 operate on the 800-3,000MHz part of the radio frequency spectrum. 5G will continue to use this "low-band" segment of the spectrum - sometimes called "sub-6," meaning below 6Ghz - but will add mmWave, which operates between 24GHz and 100GHz. The blazing-fast mmWave has shorter wavelengths, so it will be used in large cities but can't reach deep into rural areas, where low-band 5G will provide broader coverage. It's the combination of the two that will give 5G the huge breadth of spectrum to enable more and faster connections, but until the networks are built out in the real world, researchers have no way of testing the devices and local networks of tomorrow. The addition of AT&T 5G now makes that possible at GE Research.
"4G to a consumer was what transformed my personal device into something I can use pervasively," says Ben Verschueren, growth leader at the GE Research Forge Lab. "5G is really about industry: Industrial use cases will be the killer apps for 5G, and it's all about what's under the hood."