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Surrey University 5G lab puts UK plc at forefront of mobile innovation

At the launch of Surrey University’s 5G Innovation Centre in September 2015, mobile experts said the lab will put the UK at the heart of networking development

After three years and a £70m investment, the industry-backed 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey was formally opened in September 2015 by the Duke of Kent.

The University of Surrey has a strong track record in developing networking technology. Already its researchers have set records for wireless data transmission. Earlier in 2015 they successfully transmitted data at 1Tbps over a 100m connection in a laboratory environment, 65,000 times faster than is possible on a standard 4G connection – although 5G is not expected to reach this kind of speed.

Now it plans to use its expertise to define and develop a global 5G network that will “radically change lives across the world”.

At the launch, 5GIC director Rahim Tafazolli said opening of the centre was an important step in allowing suppliers and researchers from around the world to work together to develop the network, and for academia and industry to test applications and technologies in a real-world setting.

5G is particularly important, said Tafazolli, because it is likely to be the last mobile networking standard – at least, as mobile networking standards are currently understood.

“There will be no 6G or 7G in quite the same way as we have understood mobile generations,” he said. “Instead, there will be lower and lower latency, and higher and higher availability and capacity.

“So we see 5G is the catalyst for the transformation of society, enabling future smart homes, cities, countries and eventually the planet,” said Tafazolli.

Good for Britain

Stephen Bowker at Teoco – which has deployed a number of network management and optimisation tools in support of the 5GIC’s research – said the UK had lacked a voice during the development of the 4G standard, and its network operators had come late to market with 4G, due to a lack of spectrum.

However, with 5G, he suggested this problem no longer existed and presented an opportunity to close that gap. He said the 5GIC’s researchwould allow the UK to effectively compete with the advanced markets – such as South Korea – that spurred 4G development and are trying to do the same with 5G; and, more importantly, to bring Britain’s voice to the debate.

In 2014 London Mayor Boris Johnson attracted attention – and some scorn – for suggesting London might have a fully fledged 5G network by the year 2020.

But Tafazolli said this might not be far from the truth.

“London should be the first capital to test 5G,” said Tafazolli. “I believe a version of 5G will be in the market in this country in 2020.”

He said 5G will not be a fully formed, out-of-the-box standard universally available in 2020, but will evolve once in the field.

Keith Robson, COO of the 5GIC, said that, although 5G would by definition be a global standard, the fact that a UK institution was helping to take the lead – in talking about what 5G should be – showed a commitment to British businesses, be they startups, SMEs or enterprises.

“The UK can be a major leader but we can only do this through collaboration. The fact that this collaboration is happening in the UK, we hope will express itself in startups and SMEs that will be the next generation of enterprises in the future,” he said.

Establishing demand

Mike Short, vice-president of public affairs at O2 parent Telefónica, said collaborating on technological standards before they were established gave 5GIC, and its 24 technology partners, a clear lead.

“This is not just about establishing the standard, but market demand. The ability to trial and demonstrate technology here gives us the ability to reach out to industry. It’s a new way of developing the market,” he said.

Huawei’s head of wireless research and CTO of wireless, Tong Wen, a key investor in the 5GIC, agreed there was a clear opportunity to use the centre to benefit businesses, particularly when it came to establishing verticalised business cases for 5G networking.

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“We plan to spin off companies and work closely with suppliers and SMEs and eventually train future academic and industry leaders,” said Tafazolli.

Huawei’s Wen also said he envisaged how Huawei could help startups by contributing a base of technology they could layer their 5G systems on top of.

He agreed that operations such as 5GIC and the other European development programmes that Huawei is involved with were helpful when it came to establishing the technology – but warned that much more work lay ahead.

“There are ecosystem issues, government and regulatory issues, and the business cases are not established – so this is a multi-faceted problem,” he said.

Where are we now?

Although 5G is a few years off, 5GIC is already pushing the boundaries of what is possible now and in the future.

It has already deployed a testbed mobile network covering a 4km2 area of the Surrey University campus.

According to Tafazolli, the testbed is the world’s first large-scale, ultra-dense, end-to-end advanced 4G outdoor test network. It provides LTE-Advanced time division duplex coverage both indoors and outdoors, and 802.11ac wireless coverage.

The outdoor coverage has been broken down into three 5G cell clusters, with umbrella coverage provided by a three sector macro cell and 12 small cell sites per cluster to provide infill.

In this way, it hopes to provide a controllable and representative ultra-dense environment for the development and testing of 5G mobile broadband radio, advanced network infrastructure, and the internet of things (IoT).

In 2015, it will connect 4G radio systems with one of two mobile core networks – one at Vodafone’s test centre in Reading and one at 5GIC itself.

In 2016, it will begin to test 5G applications and mobile internet techniques including IoT apps, wireless briefcase and mobile cloud computing apps.

By 2018, said Tafazolli, 5GIC hopes to have turned the testbed into a 10Gbps-per-cell prototype 5G network, delivering speeds over 10 times faster than the highest speeds currently available on a 4G network.

“The testbed will make our research more impactful and meaningful, which leads to future innovation and experiments,” said Tafazolli. He hopes to put the testbed to work to get students to develop their own apps and will allow it to be hacked and brought down – under controlled conditions – to help develop more robust security measures.

Future applications

As 5G networks will need to support video-streaming and IoT technologies – at least in their early days – 5GIC set up two showcase projects to demonstrate the power of its testbed network.

Using Huawei hardware and developed with help from the BBC, the 5GIC demonstrated wireless mobile-streaming ultra high-definition (UHD) video, sending pictures to a mobile device over an enhanced outdoor mobile network.

The demonstration had a mobile device make a video download request towards a video server hosted in the 5GIC machine room, where a number of compressed BBC 4K UHD video samples were stored. These samples were streamed to a 5G baseband processor to be coded for transmission over a 5G radio channel over Gigabit Ethernet (GBE).

This signal was in turn converted to a sampled radio signal and sent over optical fibre to a 5G remote radio unit at one of the on-campus base sites, where it was transmitted to the downlink device.

The device then used its own baseband processing – forwarding over GBE towards a video-processing unit that decompressed the 4K video signal into a plain UHD signal. This was then sent over high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) to a regular UHD monitor, which clearly provided higher quality, less compressed images than one might expect to see on 4G networks.

The second demonstration used sparse code multiple access (SCMA) – a kind of multiple access technology which can connect large numbers of devices to a system – to show off a typical IoT use case. SCMA means multiple users can occupy the same spectrum resource, giving a 300% increase in network throughput compared with 4G.

The demonstration showed 12 IoT devices – in this case 12 laptops – operating at 2.6GHz, using four resource blocks. In a 4G system only four devices could access the network at the same time using the same resources – however, with SCMA in place, all 12 devices accessed it simultaneously.

The 12 IoT laptops transmitted their packets over the air to a campus base site, which forwarded a sample of the radio signal over optical fibre to the 5G baseband processing unit in the 5GIC machine room. This unit then recovered the information and relayed it as a GBE stream over Wi-Fi towards a user interface PC.

The 5GIC believes SCMA will prove a very promising key technology for both 5G networks, and the future of the IoT.

“The true impact of 5G will come from the innovative applications the new network will enable,” concluded Tafazolli.

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