Published on February 22

Mobile World Congress Day 1: Facebook, 5G and Industrial Wearables

GE and WP Brand Studio are partnering to put the lens of industry on Mobile World Congress with special reports live from Barcelona.  Minds + Machines: Speaking Industry is a partner program, made possible by GE. The Washington Post newsroom is not involved in content production.

By Todd Wasserman

The 2016 Mobile World Congress provided a glimpse of the emerging industrial Internet and the tantalizing prospect of 5G, the high-speed wireless network, but the industry will have to wait a few years for full implementation.

While AT&T and Verizon, among others, are testing 5G this year, AT&T vice chairman and CEO Ralph de la Vega said the “commercial start date” for 5G for industrial use will probably be in 2018, and more like 2020 for “the time it picks up speed.”

Looking ahead to 2020, the GSMA (Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) also estimates another 1 billion new customers will tap into the mobile Internet. For such customers, the future looks rosy indeed—de la Vega even promised that the industrial application of mobile will cure cancer. However, some headaches remain–literal ones in some cases.

5G and the rise of smart machines 

Yet when it comes to overall improvement, nothing can rival 5G. The so-called fifth-generation mobile network will offer speeds of 1 Gbit per second, which is 10 times what 4G offers.

In a roundtable discussion, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said that 5G will likely usher in an age of smart machines. “4G was much more about us and our phones,” he said. “5G will be a balance between us and the machines, and the machines will outnumber us 10 to one.”

AT&T’s de la Vega said that while 5G provides faster speeds, the key difference will be in latency. “That allows you to make real-time decisions on a real-time basis,” he said. “If you’re driving in a car, or worse yet, you’re having an experience in an autonomous car, you want to make sure that has low latency. If it’s going to make a decision to turn left or right, that’s got to be done in real time.”

Among other possible industrial uses, De la Vega foresees a day when Internet-connected sensors the size of a grain of sand will detect cancer in the blood. “I really personally believe before too long cancer is going to be a manageable disease,” he said.

Industrial wearables

For proponents of industrial wearable computing devices, the future looked similarly promising. In another panel, Stuart Carlaw, chief research officer of ABI Research, quoted stats showing huge room for growth in the category. Last year, some 135 million wearables shipped, but just 15 million were for enterprise users.

By 2021, there will be 390 million units shipped, 102 million of which will be for enterprise use. From now until 2021, growth for enterprise-focused wearables will outstrip comparative growth in consumer-focused wearables by 300 percent, he said.

Companies are using wearables for a variety of applications. In a pilot program with an unnamed utility company, employees are using Vuzix Corporation’s smart glasses with augmented reality to “see” where underground pipes are laid and avoid having to dig more than they need to reach them. An automaker is employing Germany’s ProGlove to help workers avoid making mistakes in the factory. Another firm is using Atheer Labs’s smart glasses to link to a desk-bound expert who helps workers identify and fix corrosion in pipes.

While the utility of such devices is clear, the companies admit that the ROI isn’t sometimes. Lance Anderson, vice president of enterprise sales for Vuzix, said that’s partially a result of using “old paradigms” to measure wearables’ success but also a reflection of the technology’s early stages and on-the-ground use of data. “It’s about what’s available today and what you can do today with your current data structure,” he said. “No one’s in a green field. No one gets to completely start over. You have to use these current wearables in your existing operation.”

One possible hitch is that AR and especially VR headsets might cause headaches in workers. There was some talk of such a side effect with Google Glass, but it’s too soon to tell if industrial headsets might cause such issues. Anderson said the solution in part is to be stingy with the data you present on the devices. “It’s about presenting the right information at the right time and no more,” he said. “You don’t want to oversaturate people.”

Some other aspects of industrial wearables may help ease the pain. In particular, wearables can help the estimated 110 million “deskless professionals” to do their jobs better with fewer accidents, said Vishal Shah VP of business development for Atheer Labs. All the more reason that, for some, 5G can’t come fast enough.


Todd Wasserman has been writing professionally for over 20 years and was most recently Mashable’s Business Editor. From 1999-2010, he covered the advertising and marketing industry for Brandweek, and became editor-in-chief in 2007. He wrote for Computer Retail Week and various dailys, and freelanced for The New York Times, Business 2.0, The Hollywood Reporter and Inc., among others. He has appeared on CNN, NPR, Fox Business and BBC America.