Vodafone's 5G network went live at the end of last year. Spark is testing the technology in South Island towns. It also has a test site on Waitematā Harbour as Auckland prepares for next year's America's Cup races. Today's 5G networks are in their infancy. Over time they will be more widespread and offer faster speeds, will this transform the city?
Matt Hitti, who looks after strategy and architecture for Vodafone thinks the impact will be profound.
He says 5G is more than a technology upgrade from 4G mobile networks.
"As a company, we've said for some time that we're about connecting people, places and things. Now we're starting to have an impact on every aspect of life and work. That includes the functioning of a city."
The key is that 5G will trigger a massive change in the way organisations work with remote sensors. 5G has much greater capacity. This means it can push more data through the air while also pushing it faster. Extra capacity also means many more devices can connect to the network at the same time.
Connecting sensors to wireless networks isn't new. Connecting many more sensors and sensors capable of much greater throughput is. Hitti says some of those sensors will be high definition video cameras.
"We're going to get good quality, high-resolution video, even 4k video. Soon we'll also have 8k video. Then we'll be able to analyse the video quickly and make decisions based on it."
And that's the other key 5G feature. Latency — that's the time data takes for a round trip — is much lower than with older mobile technologies.
This means computers can process data collected from sensors in real time. They can act on the results immediately.
Hitti says to make this work, companies will push computers to the edge of the 5G network. The data won't need to travel all the way to remote cloud servers. That way they can make decisions faster.
He says machine learning and artificial intelligence will be part of this.
Automated video analysis systems will be able to spot problems as they occur. Say, if a camera spots people running from a building. Software can trigger an emergency service alarm which can dispatch fire engines, police or ambulances in an instant.
Low latency, AI and fast data turnaround are all essential for driverless cars. Hitti says that at first, we will see these on campuses or in industrial areas away from the open road. Eventually, the technology will mean driverless cars can platoon — that is drive in a convoy at speed — down major roads.
Other sensors may be listening for sounds.
If, say, three microphones hear breaking glass, they can triangulate to determine where that happened. The system may dispatch a crew to clear up the mess, an ambulance to deal with injuries or police to deal with a break-in.
Renee Mataparae, Agile Tribe Lead at Spark says the company already has a handle on how 5G will impact life in Auckland. It has been running its interactive 5G test lab at the Wynyard Quarter to test applications. The lab was the base for the company's foray into driverless cars in conjunction with its partner Ohmio. She says you may not see these cars on roads soon, but they are making their way on to campuses and industrial sites.
The lab is also where Spark is working on 5G with Emirates Team New Zealand in the run-up to the America's Cup. Mateparae says the lessons learned on the water are being applied elsewhere in areas such as traffic management.
"Emirates Team New Zealand is using 5G to collect data about the performance of a boat and get it back to shore immediately. They collect boat data and analyse it in real time. That saves them hours a day crunching away at data.
"As soon as they get off the water they have the information they need to start refining the boat.
"There are heaps of ways you can apply this to transport and managing traffic. At a road intersection, you would be able to analyse the traffic flow and alter the phasing of the lights to make things more seamless. You might monitor flows on the Harbour Bridge and use real-time data to change the timing of having the lanes moved over", she says.
Spark's 5G lab has also been working on using the technology in healthcare.
Mataparae says: "There are a lot of opportunities around remote patient monitoring and helping to change the way people live. 5G can help retired people stay in their family homes for longer and live well. There is also work on smarter hospitals and what they can do for people's health outcomes."
Huawei deputy CEO Andrew Bowater says it is early days and the 5G networks we see today are not yet in their final form.
But, he says, one day 5G could transform the way we live and work in a city like Auckland. He ties this in to when the Super City combined councils making huge infrastructure upgrades easier.
"5G can provide the platform for that development. It can help with improving the way transport systems operate and the way our energy is delivered. It can manage traffic flows and rail networks.
"We can put sensors on all the critical infrastructure pipelines and monitor everything."
Bowater says this is a less well-understood aspect of 5G.
"It's different from 3G and 4G. They were about people communicating with each other or with the internet. 5G extends this so that machines and systems can communicate with each other.
"This brings about a lot of the things that go to make up the smart cities that the telecommunications industry has talked about for so long now.
It has always been some way off, but now the platform is there. It can deliver the items on most council's wish-lists."
Bowater says Aucklanders may see 5G technology's impact on transport first. "Look at the large infrastructure projects that fill our streets with road cones at the moment. 5G technology will come to life at about the same time as those projects.
"We could end up with a perfect storm for quite a bit of innovation in the central city."
Ken Budka says 5G will make a huge impact on public safety. Budka is senior partner, verticals at Bell Labs Consulting, which is part of Nokia, the network company building Vodafone's 5G network.
He says with 5G in place we can now deploy sensors and devices to monitor environmental conditions such as air and water quality.
"Because there is little delay in a 5G network, we can measure everything in real time and with automation, responses can kick in immediately.
"You can remotely control equipment. This is useful in industrial applications and particularly in those jobs that might be hazardous.
"You don't have to send people in to work directly on dangerous equipment.
"We're going to use 5G to keep people out of harm's way," he says.