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The new reality of 5G

5G’s development has been driven by a variety of use cases leading to a multi-service capability – a network of networks. But what is the reality of this, and how is it expected to change as we move forward?

The roll-out of fifth generation mobile networks in the UK started last summer, and all four mobile network operators in the UK are now actively deploying 5G. The promise of 5G was for something totally different, not just a go-faster 4G nor a platform just to sell more handsets. 

Following the ITP’s first 5G seminar in May 2018 which looked at the architecture, the concept of network slicing and the vision for 5G, the second 5G seminar held in the auditorium at BT Centre, London in November 2019, was a timely opportunity to explore the reality of 5G. It was attended by about 120 people, with speakers from UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, Cluttons, BT, Nokia and Cisco.

The seminar was opened by CEO Crissi Williams, who talked about the skills gap in telecoms and IT, noting that 5G and its related ecosystem was predicted to lead to 22 million jobs globally.

Skilled professionals will be needed in the fields of cyber security, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and education in the STEM subjects, apprenticeships and work-based training will play a key role.

Ofcom is developing a spectrum sharing framework and local spectrum licence arrangements - low power for indoors only and medium power for rural – and principal advisor in its technology group, Federico Boccardi, identified six key aspects of 5G of concern: (1) sharing of spectrum and spectrum auctions; (2) barriers to innovation; (3) coverage in hard-to-reach places such as trains and connected cars; (4) security, where the challenge is where the responsibility lies given that security spans the device, APIs, virtualisation, network slicing, cloud computing and open networks, an area in which Ofcom is seeking to identify best practice in terms of network reliability; (5)  achieving a global consensus around new spectrum bands; (6) preparing for the future and embracing the new technologies and deployment models. Boccardi noted that, in Europe, the use of lower frequency bands would give better coverage compared to the USA where mm wave bands are being used. 

John Gravett from Cluttons described the role the company plays in property management through the lifecycle and, in particular, its work with network operators to secure accommodation for network equipment such as 5G antennas and fibre access to premises. He noted the full-fibre ambitions of the political parties but observed that there are still barriers to deployment such as wayleave complexities.

Cluttons has undertaken research that indicates there is low awareness generally on the part of landlords about the importance of building connectivity, and that points to the need for education.  On the other hand, working from home increases expectations about connectivity.

Enhanced mobile broadband

Andy Sutton of BT described its subsidiary EE’s initial deployment of 5G, noting the focus on enhanced mobile broadband and in delivering faster speeds to more places more reliably.

He described the way the 4G core network will be used, the functional architecture of the radio access network, the evolution of multiple input multiple output antennas, and the backhaul, a fibre-first strategy to deliver 10Gbit/s to antenna sites but with mm wave radio where fibre is not possible.

The architecture has been specified to allow plenty of flexibility as to where functions are implemented in the physical equipment. It also allows for evolution towards the use cases covered by massive machine communications and ultra-reliable, low-latency communications.

Ian Oliver from Nokia showed a scene from Mad Men, where the slides from a Kodak carousel slide projector invoked feelings of nostalgia with its ability to go back round over and over again.

Oliver described how the 5G will similarly invoke such feelings, for example by enhancing the experience at music festivals with virtual and augmented reality, by enhancing gaming experiences.

He described the technology trial at Roland-Garros tennis stadium in Paris where 5G was combined with 8K TV leading to an augmented immersive experience. He noted the growth in the virtual, augmented reality and gaming areas is predicted by Ovum to reach $40bn by 2023.

Rural First

Dez O’Connor from Cisco talked about the Rural First initiative in which the networking giant has been engaged. Although the return on investment is greater in cities, 5G offers opportunities for rural areas where traditionally there has been poor network coverage and low speeds.

The project developed use cases in the Orkneys in the areas of whisky production, salmon farming, tourism, transport, broadcast, community broadband and renewable energy. In Shropshire, use cases were developed in dairy farming and crop farming. The project not only gave some insight into the technology challenges, it also was a great opportunity to gain user feedback.

ITP moderated the panel session taking a range of questions to test the reality of 5G. Early applications of 5G fall within the enhanced mobile broadband category – this is a market the industry understands and is essentially doing more of what we do now with mobile broadband, but faster, more reliably, in more places, and more cost-effectively.

The ultra-reliable, low latency category, on the other hand, is a new to the industry and there are some misconceptions about what applications it will support and pricing. 

Read more about 5G

There was an interesting question as to whether the focus on deploying the new 5G technology could detract from the basics of maintaining the quality of customer experience – simple things like the equivalent of post-dialling delay. It was pointed out that the advances in voice codecs are leading to enhanced voice quality.

In response to a question about the use of Huawei equipment in the UK given the pressure from the White House, it was noted that EE is using Huawei’s radio access equipment and antennas along with other suppliers’ equipment but is not using Huawei in the core.

On the question of the roles of the players in the industry value chain and “ownership” of the user, it was considered that, at least for enhanced mobile broadband, the industry model was well established and embraced the over-the-top providers and applications.

One question concerned the re-emergence of mobile phone health risk stories, particularly given the higher radio frequencies of 5G.  In reply, the recent BBC report was cited which itself references a number of studies; the frequencies used for mobile phone networks are non-ionising which means they lack the energy to break apart DNA and cause cellular damage.

Responsibility for security is always a concern, particularly with the range of players and technologies involved. The industry will be working hard on the end-to-end aspects of the security challenge.

In conclusion, there is no question that 5G is real, and is being deployed both in the UK and worldwide. Although challenges remain, the industry is confident these will be met – and result in a major evolution of the mobile world over the coming decade.

Read more on Telecoms networks and broadband communications

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From a systems' architectural point of view, isn't 5G just another last metre link? I'd surely not wish to write software that assumed that the transport was 5G, rather than, say, a wire or wifi at the end-points. Discuss.
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