Ericsson event reflects on a year of digital transformation and envisions a future powered by 5G

December 23 2020
by Ian Hughes


In a year of virtual events and conferences, Ericsson wrapped up 2020 with a live online broadcast as part of its UnBoxed Office series hosted by Aleks Krotoski. Company executives talked about the rapid deployment of 5G and the potential for new use cases. They also discussed the ongoing growth and deployment of enterprise and industrial IoT, the increase in gaming, and the potential for augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) across a wide spectrum of use cases. Additionally, Ericsson highlighted a hybrid experience, Center T-21, mixing physical and virtual experiences.

The 451 Take

Ericsson is clear about the impact that 5G is going to have on bringing more flexibility and innovation to enterprises as well as consumers. It is less about a single killer app for 5G and more about the transformational impact of this technology globally. And it is because of this impact that there is such a range of geopolitical attitudes toward 5G. The ability to instrument a remote factory with IoT and understand that data via AI techniques relies on some form of connectivity. This may be just local to the plant for most of the use cases, but it still needs secure and reliable connectivity. For multi-plant enterprises, being able to orchestrate operation plans, train AI models and redistribute best practices needs yet more complex and secure connectivity. Ericsson does not stop at the basics of industry 4.0 but is supporting consumer startups as they innovate and build on 5G to then help service providers begin to engage with customers.

It is a necessary challenge for telcos to adjust from basic data services into richer applications and this is why gaming is often cited as leading the charge here, as we noted in a recent report. The gaming industry is also a key driver of much of the AI advances that Ericsson mentioned as being employed in other enterprise and industrial fields – which provided an interesting symmetry to the discussion as each emerging technology interacts and feeds the development of others. Another key area of growth, as indicated in the 5G Startup program, is VR. We have described the depth of these applications, observing that AR is the UI for IoT. It is also clear, although not specifically noted by Ericsson, that connectivity to a new breed of emerging holographic display technologies will benefit from the capabilities of 5G.

Current status

The session started out with reflections from Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm regarding the pandemic in which he noted that much of the technology was already in place to allow the switch to remote working and that the lockdown acted as the catalyst forcing rapid adoption. He discussed how 85,000 employees (85% of the workforce) at Ericsson switched to working from home almost overnight in March 2020. A special mention was given to those field service workers who keep the networks running in roles that require hands-on interaction with equipment.

The company sees 5G as a much faster rollout than 4G, citing 117 commercial contracts and 70 live networks already scaling fast. It started preparing for 5G in 2015 and has shipped six million 5G-ready radio systems across 36 countries that currently operate as 4G but are upgradable via software for the newer network technology.

Ekholm also discussed the importance of 5G as part of the ongoing global digital infrastructure, viewing it as a critical technology to solve significant challenges such as the looming climate crisis. It was also stated that 4G was an innovation trigger for many consumer applications but that the technology also opens up the potential for many yet-to-be-discovered enterprise use cases.

Continuing this enterprise theme, Ericsson explained that the combination of high-performance connectivity and new levels of security with 5G, IoT approaches toward instrumentation of machinery and the planet, and the rise of AI applications working on that data is just the beginning of the journey. 5G was touted as integrating the flexibility of wireless with the security and robustness of wired connections to provide both for enterprise and industrial applications.

5G customers

In September, Ericsson paid $1.1bn for Cradlepoint. The target develops and sells offerings for customers using 4G and 5G and also connecting to other systems and devices. Ericsson discussed a project with Taylor Construction in Australia where Cradlepoint worked with Telstra's 5G network to create applications for construction sites. These included deploying Microsoft's HoloLens 2 AR headset to render digital versions of buildings on-site. It also is working on IoT structural sensing during construction, ensuring that concrete is poured optimally. Real-time changes to digital blueprints can also be made and replicated to keep an up-to-date digital twin of the build available to all.

Ericsson customer America Movil, based in Mexico, operates in 20 countries in Latin America. It is looking to roll out 5G over the course of 2021 in those countries. The company sees 5G as an enabler meeting the needs of the growing videogame sector in the region. Also, the connectivity will help remote manufacturing plants transform into more competitive and efficient industry 4.0 with industrial IoT. America Movil indicated that there was still some effort required in getting licensed bandwidths at affordable prices, but that it sees the benefit of investment in communications technology to not only recover from the pandemic but also make long-lasting transformational change.

World issues

Ericsson discussed some of the geopolitical challenges facing 5G and related technology, including several moves to block or stifle it with restrictions and bans. The vendor argued that this fragmentation could be destabilizing. It wants to see a global digital infrastructure for all, along with healthy and open competition to drive innovation, so that the industry can then focus on solving problems such a climate change. Ericsson noted that there are already eight billion interoperable connections with 4G, those being mostly consumer-based, and that 5G brings in the enterprise segment.

Next, Ericsson addressed sustainability and inclusivity. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) states that 360 million young people have no access the internet. UNICEF and ITU have created Giga Initiative to address this issue and connect every school to the internet in developing countries. Ericsson has joined with UNICEF with a three-year initiative to map connectivity gaps in 35 countries to help find those schools.

The future

In a discussion regarding a vision of the future for the next 10 years in telecom, Ericsson acknowledged many of the things that have been talked about for a while, including automation, IoT, wearables, and the maturity and acceptance of AI as enablers for future innovation. It also noted that this sits alongside geopolitical and cultural issues further exacerbated by the long-term impact – in all areas – of the pandemic. However, out at the fringes, Ericsson is looking at what it says some futurologists have labeled the 'synthetic' decade. This features an increased use of AI-driven media such as news, as well as biotechnology advances for individual targeted medicines.

Additionally, the company highlighted an evolution in biotech for a sustainable food chain, growing crops without soil, or creating the perfect environment for a crop. It considers mobility and connectivity such as 5G key to supporting and governing these advances. For Ericsson, the future of the home office and new work surroundings by 2030 would see white-collar workers expecting to be using a range of devices such as VR and wearables, with an internet of sensors that employs taste, smell and touch.

Startups in AR and VR

Ericsson has a 5G accelerator called Startup 5G. This program aims to nurture innovative companies and connect them to service providers to get the most out of 5G. It was clear that 5G is not just about faster phone data for consumers, but that the attributes of this new form of connectivity is an enabler of new applications.

The companies currently in Startup 5G span AR, VR, gaming, e-sports and other consumer applications. XRSpace claims to offer the world's first 5G stand-alone VR headset combined with a social virtual world. Znipe TV is a 5G-enabled e-sports content platform. Inception XR combines education and entertainment into AR experiences seeking to maximize benefits of children's screen time. Linkflow has invented a 4K UHD 360-degree streaming camera as a wearable neckband, the FITT360. ForwardGames use the benefits of 5G low latency for AR multiplayer games for outdoor environments. Eyecandylab creates experiences and products such as AugmenTV that provide additional content around TV viewing via AR. Playsight deploys AI such as computer vision to help automate sports broadcast production and provide analysis for those taking part in the sport. Serverless multiplayer orchestration technology from Croquet is used to create collaborative shared experiences such as in AR and VR.

Finally, Ericsson closed the UnBoxed Office series by describing its new T-21 experience center at its Stockholm headquarters, which is slated to open in February 2021. When initially being built, it was intended to be a physical center for innovative demonstrations, but the vendor quickly adjusted to also make it a set of virtual experiences – with the pressures of social distancing and remote working making that a necessity.