At the beginning of 2020 as the full horror and scope of the world of Covid-19 was becoming apparent, many were worried about the prospects for advanced communications networks. What if the pandemic brought to a grinding halt the build-out of 5G network infrastructures? If people were forced to stay at home and not travel, what would become of mobile telecoms services? And in the world of Wi-Fi, what would happen to Wi-Fi 6 development if the places for which it was designed were closed?
With the benefit of hindsight 20 months later, these worst nightmares never came to pass. Instead, the wireless industry has been propelled by an increased user dependence on pervasive advanced communications to support work, education and leisure. Not only have the experiences of such activities been improved by the expanded deployment of next-generation wireless infrastructures, but the networks are also enabling them to be carried out in a much more environmentally friendly way.
So where exactly does the 5G industry stand right now? Aggregating the forecasts and projections of leading analysts and suppliers, the last two years have seen the rapid development of 5G, with more than 170 networks built and nearly 500 million users switching on to the networks across the world.
But despite the rapid growth to date, access to 5G services has been a case of finding a 5G hotspot to log onto. Yet, in a recent speech at the 12th Global Mobile Broadband Forum (MBBF), Yang Chaobin, president of Huawei Wireless Solution, said changes in user behaviour and industry digitisation were placing higher requirements on 5G and he proposed that the next logical step for the comms industry is to evolve 5G to build a ubiquitous gigabit network and what Huawei calls a “5Gigaverse society”.
Explosion of wireless usage
Yang noted that in the context of fixed wireless access (FWA), the number of wireless users now exceeds that of wired users and 5G traffic has increased by three times compared with that of 4G as video services grow. For Yang, this means that the industry should expect that by 2030, mobile networks will carry more traffic than wired networks and become the main bearer of internet traffic.
In the light of these trends, said Yang, great progress has been made in industry digitisation, with 5G enabling more than 10,000 scenarios in over 20 industries worldwide. He believes that in the future, 5G capabilities will continue to evolve to incorporate fragmented connections in various industries, creating an internet of things (IoT) space with hundreds of billions of connections.
Looking at how the “5Gigaverse” is likely to be delivered, Yang pointed to massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) and ultra-wideband mobile services to maximise macro coverage and capacity. According to Yang, two years of commercial 5G deployment have proved that the massive MIMO and ultra-wideband technologies can improve user experience by 10 times and have become the choice of most operators around the world.
He said macro sites currently account for up to 45% of operators’ investment in network construction, and so how to maximise macro capacity and coverage is a top concern. He added that he is confident that in the forthcoming decade of 5G, innovation will never stop and the industry will continue to evolve and innovate towards 5.5G. “We hope to work with global partners to continuously innovate based on user experience and industry requirements to take user experience to new heights while digitally transforming industries.”
In the UK, three companies – Hado UK, Epitomical and Cambridge Sensoriis – are using Cambridge Wireless’s CW 5G Testbed to test the potential of 5G in real-world applications. Such dedicated wireless infrastructures, which offer company-specific wireless spectrum, are seeing rapid growth across Europe.
“5G private network testbeds are an essential addition to the UK’s R&D offering, enabling SMEs to integrate 5G technology at speed, to overcome issues promptly and get a more advanced product to market ahead of their competition,” says Cambridge Wireless CEO Simon Mead. “An engineering team can customise a private network such as the CW 5G Testbed to its needs, access the full range of 5G features and test a variety of connectivity scenarios, rather than depending on the more limited features and bandwidth typical of a public network.”
Hado UK is the developer and distributor of an augmented reality-based e-sport that allows support teams to play each other remotely, which means a European international match can be held without any player boarding a plane. Cambridge Sensoriis is described as an expert in radar technology and through 5G, it aims to bring a new level of safety to the UK’s roads and skies with a new cloud computing system that can position, track and monitor moving vehicles to an accuracy of a few centimetres. Epitomical is the designer of autonomous connected vehicle Autorover, which is said to be transforming critical workers’ ability to perform tasks in dangerous environments thanks to real-time teleoperations and a new robotic arm from Extend Robotics on its 5G-enabled mobile rover platform.
Almost due east across the Fens and North Sea, global operator Orange has accelerated its development of 5G products and services with a dedicated 5G standalone (SA) technology campus at the Port of Antwerp, a flagship user of Orange 5G technology and services. Working to the stated principle that the most innovative aspect of next-generation mobile networks is what you do with one, the operator said businesses are increasingly expecting telecom providers to not only offer connectivity, but a broader range of services and guidance on new technologies.
At the new site in The Beacon, Antwerp, the operator will demonstrate the capabilities of the 5G SA telecom standard and how it will help companies to innovate and digitise operations. It consolidates the knowledge and expertise gathered from Orange Belgium on 5G Industry 4.0, as well as the initial co-innovation use cases delivered in the Port of Antwerp to help develop and test new and inspiring Industry 4.0 use cases.
The lab’s radio network is directly connected to the operator’s 5G core system, and to boost the development of 5G services when compatible hardware is still a potential gating factor, the Orange 5G Lab site hosts various types of certified 5G devices – such as routers, smartphones, tablets, smart glasses and cameras – that work on a 5G SA network and are tested and validated by Orange engineers.
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At the opening of the site in October 2021, the operator displayed a number of key use cases facilitated by it 5G network, including industrial robotics, autonomous vehicle safety from the context of enabling object detection on railway lines along with autonomous driving of a host of vehicles, and emergency response using push-to-talk functionality.
For Werner De Laet, chief of enterprise, wholesale and innovation officer at Orange Belgium, the opening of the 5G Lab was an important step towards delivering concrete business value from the next-generation network. “We have a strategic plan which we call Orange Ahead,” he says. “There’s one important pillar which is boosting the B2B market, which is an important growth factor. Two years ago, we decided to not just speak about 5G, not to try to imagine what 5G could bring, but to just do it and not do it alone, trying to create an ecosystem with companies that are next door to customers, partners and startups.”
An intrinsic part of the new 5G ecosystem will be multi-access edge computing (MEC). US comms provider Verizon, for instance, went live in October 2021 to deliver a service for its enterprise customers in the US based on its private MEC offering integrated with AWS Outposts, to offer a cloud computing platform that brings compute and storage services to the edge of the network on the customer premises.
The partners guarantee that their combined system supports the massive bandwidth and low latency needed to support real-time enterprise applications such as intelligent logistics, factory automation and robotics. Enterprises will have a dedicated infrastructure on-premise that is said to enable ultra-low latency, higher levels of security and deeper customisation.
Scalability and technical challenges
Despite all the general optimism surrounding 5G and advanced wireless communications in general, there are a number of potential gating factors to development. Availability of essential hardware has been one and another key issue has been how to apportion the key 6GHz frequency range, sitting at the nexus of the mid-band 5G industry and the rapidly growing Wi-Fi 6/6E arena.
A September 2021 survey by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, the WBA annual industry report 2022, found that as many as 83% of comms service providers and equipment manufacturers and enterprises worldwide will have deployed Wi-Fi 6/6E, or plan to do so, before the end of 2022. The study revealed how 6GHz spectrum will enable Wi-Fi to support even more users and new use cases, such as time-sensitive networking (TSN) for Industry 4.0 applications. The survey also showed that almost three-fifths of respondents said 6GHz was critical or very important to their strategy.
The report also noted that 41 countries, representing 54% of the world’s GDP, have authorised 6GHz for use, while more than 338 million Wi-Fi 6E devices will enter the market in 2021, and nearly 20% of all Wi-Fi 6 device shipments will support 6GHz by 2022. WBA members were also shown to have a strong interest in the convergence of 5G and Wi-Fi 6, including how mobile operators can use Wi-Fi as part of their 5G strategy in terms of maximising coverage and capacity.
But it is not just business and industrial productivity that is benefiting from the accelerated roll-out of 5G connectivity – there is also the potential of it having a catalysing impact in reducing CO2e emissions. A recent report published by Ericsson, Connectivity and climate change, outlined the potential for huge societal gains through establishing 5G infrastructures. It suggested that implementing 5G technology across four high-emitting sectors (power, transport, manufacturing and buildings) could create 55-170 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) of emissions savings per year – the same saving that would be achieved by removing more than 35 million petrol cars from European Union (EU) roads.
Renewable energy generators
It also calculated that at least 40% of the EU’s carbon reduction solutions, up until 2030, are likely to rely on fixed-line and mobile connectivity. These technologies, such as the development of renewable energy generators, could, suggested Ericsson, reduce the EU’s emissions by 550MtCO2e, equivalent to nearly half of the emissions created by the entire EU energy supply sector in 2017, and 15% of the EU’s total annual emissions in 2017 – the year chosen as a benchmark for the analysis.
Yet by 2027, just three years before global emissions will need to have halved to stay on track for 1.5ºC global warming, forecasts show that global 5G roll-out will still only be around 75%. North America and North East Asia are estimated to achieve more than 95% population coverage by 2027, but by contrast, Europe is estimated to be significantly behind its economic competitors, with about 80% population coverage.
The report concluded by warning that policymakers and regulators have a major role to play here by realising the competitive economic, social and sustainable potential of 5G and working speedily together to clear the associated practical, financial and regulatory obstacles that stand in the way of the proliferation of 5G and the resulting benefits in terms of the reduction of emissions.
Despite these challenges, the case for 5G appears to be rock solid. The business and societal benefits for mass deployment are clear. But a hard reality is that the pace of adoption varies across the world. Some countries and regions are sprinting towards 5G and the gains that it can bring; others are strolling. And there are regions where development is non-existent. Such divergence needs to be resolved if the potential successes of the new post-Covid world and the experience economy are to be realised for all.