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Despite, or maybe because of, the Covid-19 pandemic, telecoms network deployment has flourished over the past 18 months. And definitely despite the bans on use of technology from Chinese suppliers in networks in many of the major economies around the world, acceleration has been particularly pronounced. Although there has been huge public demand for 5G over the past two years or so, in 2021, the key driver in the world of business comms was keep it private, not public.
In the UK, one of the most encouraging aspects of telecoms development was the news that the country’s operators took a very uncharacteristic low-ball approach to purchasing mid-band 5G spectrum in April 2021. Indeed, in terms of the bid submitted to UK regulator Ofcom, the assignment stage ended with four operators investing a total of £1.379bn.
What this very pragmatic approach meant was that the operators would not be passing huge costs on to business to take advantage of 5G and its intrinsic elements, such as private, network slicing, the bedrock of Industry 4.0, supporting digital transformation of industrial processes and driving huge efficiency and effectiveness gains. As 5G matures and gets more diffuse, such benefits will only become more widespread. And as 2021 ends, it was hugely significant that leading car makers such as Porsche and Volkswagen were getting into gear with private 5G.
With this in mind, here’s a look back over Computer Weekly’s top 10 telecoms stories of 2021.
UK comms regulator Ofcom has revealed that principal stage bidding has now ended for the 200MHz of 5G spectrum that it put up for auction, with the swift conclusion of the auction and the relatively modest overall spend of just of £1bn being seen as good news for maintaining the UK’s 5G development.
Four companies – EE , Hutchison 3G UK (owner of the Three UK network), O2 parent Telefónica UK and Vodafone – took part in the principal stage of the auction for spectrum that was split across two bands – 80MHz of spectrum in the so-called low-band at 700MHz, and 120MHz of spectrum in 3.6-3.8GHz mid-band.
Global technology and business solutions provider NTT has launched Private 5G platform (P5G), which it says is the first globally available private LTE/5G network-as-a-service platform.
Aiming to tap into private 5G, and targeting chief information officers and chief digital officers, NTT P5G offers an end-to-end stack of services that it says go beyond the network, using design thinking principles to integrate security, control and privacy by design, providing what NTT says are performance and cost benefits with a clear return on investment.
NTT says fuelling enterprise digital transformation with cloud-based economics and automation is at the heart of its vision for private 5G. The new platform is focused on driving the global acceleration of private 5G to meet the rapidly evolving needs of enterprises across industries, including automotive, manufacturing, healthcare and retail to create unprecedented alignment of data, connectivity, security and communications.
A study from communications operator Vodafone is suggesting the adoption of 5G could transform manufacturing operations and significantly increase productivity across the country, especially in the North West, North East, Midlands and Wales.
Moreover, the Powering up manufacturing, levelling up Britain report calculates that the successful deployment may add as much as £6.3bn to the value of the UK manufacturing industry by the end of the decade.
The study, with economic analysis by WPI Economics, looks ahead to how the technology could impact the UK’s manufacturing industry and highlights how the adoption of 5G in the manufacturing industry could play a significant role in realising the government’s levelling-up ambitions. It highlights key areas where 5G can support economic growth in the manufacturing industry across the UK.
Satellite-based broadband is increasingly being investigated as a viable alternative to the UK’s fixed broadband network. In the latest development in the area, a consortium comprising Darwin Innovation Group, Virgin Media O2, Amazon Web Services, HISPASAT, the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency has announced tests of ubiquitous communications technology in Cornwall.
Ubiquitous communications technology is designed to make it possible to switch seamlessly between 5G and satellite networks as required by users. This ability is even more pertinent at England’s extreme south-west edge where people have traditionally been starved of assured, high-quality fixed broadband or even basic wireless reception.
BT has set out plans to introduce what it claims will be the UK’s first fully converged network that can support “revolutionary” new services for customers and converged technology opportunities for businesses.
As it confirmed technology “milestones” that will drive performance of the 5G network and deliver network convergence, the telco said 4K content streaming, the rapid growth of augmented and virtual realities and increasing demand for high-quality video-conferencing are helping to drive 40% growth in demand for mobile network capacity every year.
As a result, said BT, investment into wider coverage and technology improvements were crucial to meet customers’ growing expectations of their digital networks, as well as improving their experiences. It noted that 5G was already revolutionising gaming and immersive entertainment experiences, while for businesses, the advancements can help catalyse the digital transformation of major industries, boosting productivity and efficiency, and creating new services.
Volkswagen has deployed a private 5G standalone wireless network at its main plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, and becomes the second major German car manufacturer in a week to make such a move to boost its enterprise communications.
The private campus network will use the Nokia Digital Automation Cloud (DAC) to provide reliable, secure, real-time connectivity and enable Volkswagen to trial new smart factory use cases. The industrial-grade private 5G wireless network covers the production development centre and pilot hall at the Wolfsburg plant.
In the pilot project, Volkswagen will test whether the 5G technology meets the demanding requirements of vehicle production, with the goal to increase efficiency and flexibility in future series production.
Throughout 2021, hyperscalers have put telcos in the shade in the provision of private 5G networks, and this trend looks set to accelerate, with cloud giant Amazon Web Services (AWS) announcing a new service designed to deploy and scale private networks in their facilities in days instead of months.
As it was launching AWS Private 5G, the company noted that more and more enterprises need to collect, analyse and transfer massive amounts of data within their operations from the large number of connected sensors and edge devices prevalent in today’s enterprises. AWS also said customers want to use cellular technologies such as 5G for their on-premise connectivity needs because it offers long-range, extended outdoor coverage, device mobility, and reliable network behaviour.
It added that cellular technologies such as 5G also allow customers to connect more devices and more cost-effectively collect and transfer data with greater flexibility and reliability than current wired and wireless networking technologies.
Comms provider Ericsson has entered into a collaboration with Porsche in a trial project representing the first deployment by the high-performance car manufacturer of a private next-generation network which it hopes will herald a new remote production era, driving the future of the automotive industry.
The dedicated 5G network will be piloted in the technology cell body shop for Porsche’s Macan line and will enable the control of robotics in real time without cables. It also allows for the transmission of massive amounts of data between other onsite machines, production workers and vehicles through the secure, flexible and predictable transmission of signals in real time.
The updated automation capabilities are intended to have a significant impact on production at Porsche, providing numerous benefits for the company and its workers, including increased worker safety and a more efficient form of quality: faster production times, reduced costs and increased quality.
The rapid uptake and future lucrative potential of private LTE and 5G networks has been shown clearly throughout the year, first by market analysts and then through an increasing number of deployments around the globe. In terms of who is facilitating such infrastructures, it is the cloud giants that customers are turning to rather than telcos, says research from Omdia.
This is among the key findings from the market analyst’s annual survey of enterprises that are using, trialling or planning to deploy private LTE and 5G networks in six key verticals – the Private LTE and 5G network enterprise survey insight – 2021. A total of 451 respondents from seven countries took part in the survey.
Perhaps indicating why the hyperscalers have most traction, the study revealed that two-thirds of enterprises require private network suppliers to demonstrate integration with their existing cloud platform before they will buy. Similar demands apply to enterprises’ internet of things (IoT) and application management platforms.
10. UK 2G and 3G mobile networks to be switched off by 2033, Open RAN to carry 35% of traffic by 2030
The UK’s 2G and 3G mobile networks will be phased out of use in the UK by 2033 as part of the government’s latest measures to not only support a smooth transition to faster mobile networks, but also to expand the diversity of telecoms supply chains in the wake of the ban of equipment from suppliers such as Huawei from 5G mobile network infrastructures.
The announcement comes hot on the heels of the introduction of the Telecommunications Security Actand forms part of the UK government’s £250m ambition to build a more competitive, innovative and diverse supply chain for telecoms, to reduce over-reliance on a few equipment makers.
In practical terms, the UK government and the leading UK mobile network operators (MNOs), Vodafone, EE, Virgin Media O2 and Three, have agreed on 2033 as the date by which all public 2G and 3G networks in the UK will be switched off. This act is intended to free up the required amount of spectrum to allow for the mass roll-out of 5G and other future networks such as 6G.