Imagine a world where virtual and remote objects can be manipulated as if they were sitting on a nearby table. That is the promise of fifth generation wireless.
Demos from Verizon (VZ) at CES, the giant Las Vegas electronics show, were greeted with ambivalence. Skeptics are focused on smartphones. But 5G is bigger, more important.
And that means investors are being gifted a huge opportunity.
5G means wireless networks are about to get sublimely fast. Download speeds will approach 20 Gbps, versus 10 Mps for 4G technology. That is a 100x to 200X improvement. According to a Digital Trends video, that is the difference between streaming a single 4K movie, and steaming 800 8K movies at the same time.
And while that is cool, the real gamechanger is low latency. Human reaction is 200-300 milliseconds. 4G, at 100-200 milliseconds is a big improvement. But 5G will reduce latency to 1 millisecond.
This means software developers can replace real-time interactions with code.
Surgeons will be able to operate using connected robots on the other side of the world. Technicians will able to manipulate heavy machinery in locations unsafe for humans. Cars will be able to self-navigate, communicate with traffic lights and other vehicles.
It will mean, in time, the end of accidents. Maybe even the end of traffic.
Skeptics point to the lack of killer 5G applications for smartphones. Bloomberg reported Apple (AAPL) will not bring 5G to its lineup of iPhones until 2020 at the earliest.
However, smartphones are not are central to the future of connectivity. They are more likely to be an accessory, used to summon Ubers, watch YouTube cat videos and catch up with friends on social media sites. In most cases, 4G is plenty fast enough.
Plus, there are some technical limitations. 5G operates in mixed frequencies using a technology called millimeter wave. Unfortunately, these signals don’t travel far, around 300 meters. Blowing leaves and even rain can mess with them. And often signals can’t get through walls.
To build out a 5G wireless network capable of reaching everywhere smartphones users would require multiple new transmitters every 200 meters, and facing in every direction.
According to a CNN Business report, such a network throughout the continental U.S. might cost $300 billion.
On the other hand, the capacity of 5G networks is immense. It will be perfect for dense urban centers, industrial settings, university and hospital campuses.
Smart city infrastructure, connected and self-driving cars, automated factories and remote robotic surgery are killer applications begging for 5G connectivity. And now the networks are being built.
Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) started with a simple plan: Make surgery less invasive using robots. In 1995, the concept seemed like science fiction.
Today, the company claims that every 36 seconds, its da Vinci robotic system helps a surgeon perform better. Intuitive has a complete portfolio of robots, each with multiple, fully articulating mechanical arms and hands outfitted with specialized instruments for grasping, cutting and sewing.
Surgeons sit comfortably at a console station where they view the operation through 3DHD lens. Inside calibrated gloves, their hands guide the robotic arms. Software corrects hand tremors and guides instruments with dexterity and precision.
Through the end of calendar 2018, Intuitive boasted 5 million patients, 43,000 trained surgeons, 4,989 systems installed, including 100% of the top hospitals for cancer, gynecology, gastroenterology and urology.
In addition to robotics, the company is making significant R&D investments in artificial intelligence. The goal is to leverage its 2,700 existing, and 1,900 pending patents to ensure the very first fully autonomous, or remote location robotic surgery systems come from Intuitive Surgical.
The arrival of low latency 5G networks will hasten the progression.
Intuitive is an entrepreneurial company with a long history of innovation and sales growth. At 40x forward earnings and 16x sales, shares are not cheap. However, investors are underestimating the growth opportunities 5G will bring.
Since fiscal 2015, the company has had middle teens sales growth based largely on recurring revenues of $170,000 per da Vinci installation. In fiscal 2018, sales grew 19% to $3.7 billion.
Based on accelerating sales growth alone, the stock could double from current levels in 3 years. Growth-oriented investors can buy Intuitive shares into weakness.
Jon D. Markman
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