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What is low latency and why does it matter to your business?

A look at the future of connectivity

Two people using a VR headset and looking at a 3D city

While 5G will introduce new possibilities for business through gigabit-speed connectivity, data speed isn’t the whole story. Ultra-low latency is another feature of 5G networks that promises to transform the way we work.

Let’s start by looking at some of the characteristics of 5G. In comparison to current LTE networks, 5G promises three fundamental changes: increased capacity, higher throughput speeds and lower latency. Capacity refers to the maximum amount of data that can be transferred through a wired or wireless network, which determines how many simultaneous voice and data connections it can handle. By comparison, 5G networks will have the capacity to connect 500 times more devices than 4G. The next characteristic, throughput speed, is the actual amount of data that enters and goes through a system, typically measured in megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps). Finally, latency refers to how much time it takes for information to get from one point to another. The more that latency can be reduced, the better a group of connected devices can communicate. The promise of ultra-low latency is more instantaneous communications, enabling millions of connected devices to communicate 400 times faster than the blink of an eye. Simply put, low latency means responsiveness.

Industry experts often use the example of self-driving cars to illustrate the use case for low latency. For a car to react to surroundings that are constantly changing, it requires extremely fast reaction time (or ultra-low latency), while the same car does not necessarily require extremely high data throughput rates. On the other hand, some cloud-based services that perform complex data analysis (cloud computing) would benefit from data throughput speed improvements more than latency improvements. These high-bandwidth applications traditionally require a WiFi connection, but this will no longer be the case as we look ahead to the era of 5G.

Although not as sexy as autonomous cars, the possibilities of low-latency connectivity in everyday business processes should not be overlooked. When applied to any number of processes, low-latency creates virtually endless possibilities for efficiency. For many businesses, lower latency will make cloud services and applications more responsive and capable, meaning reductions in employee downtime and near-instant access to the files and information that workers depend on daily. Businesses that rely on collaboration solutions to communicate internally and with customers will experience seamless video conferencing and client presentations with no lag in communications.

Outside of the office, businesses that rely on machinery, such as manufacturers, construction companies and delivery services, could monitor, identify and fix technical failures before they impact operations, avoiding costly downtime. Depending on the size and nature of your business, this enhanced access to real-time information and the ability to respond instantaneously to rapidly changing data could dramatically increase efficiency and productivity. 

The true value of low-latency 5G networks has not yet been fully defined, making now the time for imagination. Tactile internet, for instance, is an ultra-low latency internet application that delivers “haptic feedback” or physical sensations in real time, ideally meeting human-level response time to make a myriad of things possible. In the future, this might equate to the remote operation of machines in factories or in high-risk locations such as mines. The impact of tactile internet has the potential to expand beyond touch to the other four human senses (sight, smell, hear, taste) enabling new applications for virtual reality, gaming and healthcare to name a few.

The key to capitalizing on these low latency technologies in the future is to begin thinking about them now. Combined with other aspects such as ultra-fast data rates and massive increases in network capacity, low-latency 5G will enable real-time communications for nearly every aspect of our lives. Regardless of which innovative use case makes the headlines next, it’s a good time to consider how the characteristics of 5G can work for you and your business.