technology

How 5G could transform health and cities

Bernard Hickey explains how 5G-connected ambulances, train stations and cars are set to revolutionise the way we move around and stay healthy.

I cannot think of anything more tedious or wasteful than either watching a bank of CCTV screens waiting for something to happen, or standing guard at a railway station just in case help is needed.

Yet so many public transport facilities, buildings, street corners, shopping malls and plazas are guarded over by a multitude of low-paid security guards, greeters and walkers.

But what if a machine was able to track the movements of people and things in a way that alerted people when help was actually needed?

I saw a glimpse of the future at Vodafone’s 5G lab in Milan with a demonstration of how a multitude of high-definition video cameras monitored by AI at the central railway station could tell if someone had fallen over, or if a fight was erupting, or if a bag had been left suspiciously alone.

In some countries, this sort of ability may seem Orwellian, and its one of the issues now facing the equipment providers for China’s increasingly intrusive monitoring of Uighurs in Xingiang and the creation of a social credit score system.

But in Milan, where Italian authorities deliberately chose not to use facial recognition, the power to track pedestrians and identify when they need help would transform the security business, and potentially even the economics of transport.

Once the movements, capacity and movements of autonomous cars, trucks, vans, trams, buses and trains are coordinated with traffic lights and public transport schedules to maximise the efficiency of networks, the power of AI, cheap and plentiful sensors and 5G becomes more obvious. See more on how 5G works and productivity potential of the snythesis of these three forces in the first and second in this series of articles: (5G: Atomic clocks, beaming Massive MIMOs and sliced networks, and How 5G could unleash a productivity quantum leap)

Government services are among those that appear on the surface least likely to be affected by the combination of these technologies to be either disruptive or transformational. But they’re also one of the sectors with the lowest productivity growth in New Zealand - being the least internationally connected, the least competitive and among the slowest to adopt new technology.

Offshoring services into the cloud and offshore too

The first wave of the App economy has done little to change the health, education and governmental sectors. There is no Uber for ambulances yet. There is no Airbnb for hospitals or a WhatsApp variant that allows you to talk to a doctor and get a diagnosis.

But these technologies are quickly shifting towards a world where much of the high-touch and real-time work needed in hospitals, schools and governance sectors can be done remotely, or with machine learning.

Vodafone launched its early 5G networks in Milan, Turin, Bologna, Rome and Naples in June 2019 in partnership with the Italian Government at a cost of over €90m, even though there were few 5G-capable handsets available and few services created with 5G in mind. It has already achieved 90 percent coverage around the most densely packed and wealthiest parts of Northern Italy, and plans to roll it out to another 100 cities in Italy by 2021.

The Italians were conscious of needing the network in place first and then experimenting with new services, tools and businesses to kick-start the process of innovation. Vodafone Italy even launched a €10m contest to find start-up businesses able to harness the power of 5G.

Ambulance becomes ‘part of the hospital’

Vodafone also partnered up with Milan’s health services to kit out a trial ambulance with streaming video, 4K video links and streaming biometrics-measuring gear designed to allow emergency doctors to monitor patients’ conditions and vital signs as soon as they were in the ambulance.

They can get a head-start on devising treatments, surgeries and emergency measures to save lives in that ‘golden hour’. Collecting and transferring the patients’ data in real time also saves all the double-handling and information gathering often seen in the hand-off between medical practitioners, paramedics and hospital staff.

The time savings, cost savings and life saving ability of the technology is immediately evident.

That’s one reason two of Vodafone New Zealand’s four large pilot customers for its 5G rollout from December are the Police Service and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter.

But the potential for DHBs, primary health care providers, schools, universities, polytechnics and workplace trainers to use 5G is also there. Some will choose to use these trials as testbeds to build new businesses and to use powerful tools Lego-style ‘off-the-shelf’ to reinvent themselves. Others will wait to see if it’s a real thing.

Many in the taxi, hotel, television, newspaper and travel services sectors were also surprised when their seemingly invulnerable domestic dominance was dismantled in matter or a year or two by start-ups with a move-fast-and-break things attitude.

There’ll be many in the increasingly expensive health, education and governance sectors hoping their productivity logjams can be broken by the power of AI, cheap sensors and 5G.

For those wondering where things might head, it’s worth looking at the latest big corporate deal and the appetites to compete away fat profits in apparently domestically captured areas. Google has just bid to buy Fitbit, giving it access to the sort of wearable sensors and big data that could allow the diagnosis of disease and other health issues via ‘robo-doctor’.

Bernard Hickey traveled to Dusseldorf and Milan to visit Vodafone’s 5G labs and Nokia R&D centres courtesy of Vodafone, which is a foundation sponsor of Newsroom.

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