Brian Jackson - Fotolia

The future of 5G mobile networks: support and development

In the second part of our exploration of the 5G market, we find out how UK plc is innovating around 5G mobile networks, and ask what lies in store at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Technology is a lifesaver for NHS Blood and Transplant

So far in our assessment of the world of 5G mobile networking, we have explored the current state of 5G standards and their impact on the market landscape and discussed some of  the challenges and barriers to effective roll-out.  

In the second half of this in-depth look at 5G, we will explore some of the innovation taking place around the 5G ecosystem, assess the UK government’s stance on 5G leadership and ask what it could be doing better to support the industry, and find out what to expect at Mobile World Congress 2018 in Barcelona, which begins at the end of February.

With extensive work in progress at the Universities of Bristol and Surrey, and Kings College London (KCL), the UK has the research and development (R&D) side of 5G well covered, but according to Dritan Kaleshi, lead technologist and 5G fellow at the Digital Catapult, there is still a need “for coordinated innovation in the UK to realise impact on the economic growth of the UK”.

At a recent Westminster eForum event on 5G, Kaleshi said there is a need for an intersection of market need, technological capability, cross-innovation, and a supportive regulatory framework, if the UK is to become a global leader in 5G.

Kaleshi believes that the UK needs to look towards demand-driven innovation, because the decisions of both large players such as EE and smaller entrants will be based on whether or not they are convinced they can get a return on investment (ROI).

He suggests that small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have a huge role to play in 5G because the advent of software-defined networking (SDN) is levelling the playing field to some extent, but they may not yet fully comprehend the opportunity.

“SMEs will be able to bring solutions to market much earlier, but at the same time they probably consider it’s too early for them to engage with 5G,” says Kaleshi. “This … is where coordination and focused innovation is necessary, and that is what [the government’s] 5G Testbeds and Trials programme has initiated and needs to support better.”

The Digital Catapult is currently conducting in-depth research into the state of 5G innovation in the UK, with the aim of building an evidence-based view of the local ecosystem from technical R&D capabilities to demand for innovation.

A fuller report on this is due in April 2018, said Kaleshi, but some of the early findings indicate that the 5G ecosystem is already quite rich and active, with multiple projects progressing around the country – many of them currently benefiting from European Union (EU) funding.

Partnerships for 5G success

Mansoor Hanif, director of converged networks and innovation at BT – which already plays a huge part in funding networking innovation through such means as national competitions, startup incubators, and in-house at its Adastral Park R&D centre in Suffolk – says there are a number of things his organisation needs to do better to kickstart 5G innovation in the UK.

“The missing element is venture capitalists [VCs]. We have a lot of money for investment in the UK, and most of these VCs are university spin-offs that want guidance and a path to market, so we need to be more open and spur them to fund more research,” says Hanif.

Kester Mann, CCS Insight principal analyst for operators, says cross-industry partnerships will be the best approach to innovating and building out 5G.

“I would like to see more engagement with vertical sectors and parallel industries. We hear so much about opportunities for 5G in healthcare, transport and so on, so maybe we could see more partnerships with companies outside the telecoms bubble,” he says.

UK government backs 5G, but is it deluding itself?

In the past 12 months, the UK government has committed repeatedly and extravagantly to 5G, publishing a number of strategic plans and launching several tests and trials in an attempt to secure UK leadership in 5G – or at least a semblance of leadership, given Japan and South Korea will inevitably be the true global leaders.

In its most recent update, published in December 2017, it issued a “call for views” on two pilot 5G schemes – one an urban network to demonstrate smart city technology, and the other a rural deployment to explore internet of things (IoT) use cases in agriculture, remote healthcare, and so on.

Analysys Mason senior researcher Caroline Gabriel says there has been an element of drum-beating over 5G from the government, although she stresses this is not to discount the valuable work done by the many up-and-running 5G projects.

“What is more important is [whether] the government is going to put regulations and frameworks in place to allow 5G to deliver benefits to the UK as an economy and a society? It’s all fine words, but I see very little concrete in terms of new spectrum approaches and frameworks to let industry communicate its requirements,” she says.

“It would be a waste if 5G wasn’t transformative. It is important that everyone is involved, and the government really puts effort into understanding that this is a very different technology so we need to use it in a different way, otherwise we might just as well improve what we already have.”

What will happen at MWC?

Undoubtedly, Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2018 in Barcelona, which opens 26 February, will move the 5G conversation on a few more steps. But with such a wide variety of activity going on, and so many urgent challenges to address, what will top the agenda?

Insight’s Mann says the impact of the Winter Olympics in South Korea cannot be underestimated, even if only as a means to get people thinking about 5G through a good sports technology story.

“The Olympics finishes the day before MWC starts, so given the participation in the games by the likes of Intel and Samsung, we will hear a lot about it and will get a better idea of some of the early consumer use cases, such as virtual and augmented reality,” he says. “There will be a real-life twist to MWC that we haven’t seen in previous years.

But apart from that, he is less optimistic about anything cutting through the noise. “To be honest it could be more of the same, there’ll be an awful lot of hype, it might feel like everyone there has a 5G story of some description and cutting through that will be a challenge,” he says.

“Will we be any further down line in terms of business models and use cases? I suspect not.”

Pragmatism reigns?

At wireless infrastructure supplier CommScope, Phil Sorsky, vice-president of international service providers, is hoping a more pragmatic attitude to 5G will prevail this year, as the industry works out what will be genuinely possible.

“We’ll see suppliers and operators alike demonstrating the extent to which they’re now ready to maximise their network investments and build a bridge to Next-generation technologies,” he says.

He points to developments such as new antenna models that support 4x4 MIMO, advanced modulation and carrier aggregation of unlicensed spectrum that will help progress to gigabit long term evolution (LTE), a stepping-stone along the way to 5G.

Sorsky also predicts developments in the centralised baseband processing and virtualised network functions on which 5G networks will be built.

“We should also expect a surprisingly green theme this year, as 5G is the first wireless technology designed with targets for both spectral and energy efficiency. The GSMA has a goal of reducing the sector’s total global greenhouse gas emissions per connection by 40% by 2020,” says Sorsky.

“Given the speed and amount of data 5G is expected to carry, finding a way to construct an energy-efficient, environmentally friendly ecosystem will be a major challenge, and also an opportunity.”

Read part one of our look into the UK’s 5G market here

Analysys Mason’s Gabriel says MWC may well help establish links between 5G and new networking technologies such as network automation, which is not specifically related to 5G.

“Automation will be the big thing this year, using artificial intelligence [AI] and zero-touch networking. In the context of 5G, that will be very important to the economics,” she says.

Analysys Mason’s studies have consistently shown that MNOs seem to want 5G networks to be between a third and half the cost of 4G networks to run, says Gabriel.

“5G has to be much cheaper, and one way to achieve that will be to make it automated,” she adds.

Jim Benson, mobile product marketing director at Juniper Networks, also takes the view that underlying network technologies as a 5G enabler will be high on the MWC agenda in 2018.

”5G architecture must fully embrace interoperable network functions virtualisation [NFV] and SDN technologies for the elasticity to scale and deploy network functions on demand and with reduced risk,” says Benson.

“Expect for the debate to move swiftly to 5G’s relationship with the IoT and AI. While the new network has a lot of hype to live up to, exhibitors and visitors alike will also be analysing the true potential of an incoming 5G IoT-ready world, where the prospect of a smart city finally becomes a reality,” he says.

Vested interests

EE network communications manager Howard Jones predicts an awful lot of noise from the supplier community this year. “They have a greater vested interest in 5G happening than the operators,” he says.

“We [operators] know we need to keep up from a capacity perspective and we know we need to build an infrastructure that brings the best of fixed and mobile into a converged network architecture, but the noise and pressure to back that is being driven by the supplier community for whom it is the next opportunity to drive revenues.

“The pressure on that community is to focus on use cases and to start to show how 5G can make a difference to people, and how operators can get a return on investment.”

Read more about 5G

Read more on Mobile networking

Data Center
Data Management