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Is 5G more than just another generation of mobile?

Although several mobile network operators have announced launch dates for 5G services, many people remain unsure about the aspirations for 5G, what it means for users, its monetisation and its timescales

Much has been said about 5G mobile networks, with views ranging from “It’s just a go-faster 4G” to “It’s the whole of the future of networking”. However, we are now at a stage where the 5G concepts are much clearer, technologies have been developed, testbeds are up and running, and trials are starting.

Mobile network operators are now in a position to make plans indeed, several operators have announced dates for the launch of some services over 5G. And yet many people remain unsure about the aspirations for 5G, what it means for users, its monetisation, its timescales, the reality versus the hype

This was the subject of the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals (ITP) seminar hosted in May 2018 at BT Centre in London, which was attended by more than 100 people and featured expert speakers from BT, Cisco, the 5GUK Advisory Board and Nokia. 

Functional blocks

Andy Sutton, principal network architect at BT, outlined the 5G network architecture in terms of its functional blocks. The architecture has been based on an understanding of use cases that demand, for example, low latency, emergency services, high upstream bandwidth, stadium crowds and so on.

The exact implementation of the functions will depend on the use cases – for example, low-latency services will require certain functionality very close to the edge. However, this should not imply a different network implementation, since many of the functions will be virtualised and implemented on standard x86 compute platforms.

Several architectural options exist, reflecting the evolution to 5G and the fact that the early-day instantiations of 5G will rely heavily upon 4G, particularly the core network. Novel antenna design, namely massive multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) antennas, will deliver adaptive beam shaping necessary for the throughput and capacity. 

Network slicing

Bhupinder Singh, a solutions architect from Cisco, described the concept of network slicing, particularly from a transport perspective. Network slicing is probably the most important concept of 5G as it is the way in which 5G will be able to deliver different types of service with the appropriate latency, security, quality of service, bandwidth and so on.

3G and 4G networks already embody the concept of slicing in the form of virtual private networks (VPNs), effectively to create separation for the different types of services. With 5G, this is taken a stage further in that, in addition to hard slicing (for example, using wavelengths or multi-protocol label switching), soft slicing will be used throughout the access and core. There could be hundreds of slices at a time, each needing to be rapidly created, modified and then deleted under orchestration control. Effectively, what this enables is a very flexible, agile network capable of supporting the whole range of use cases.

Mansoor Hanif, a member of the 5GUK Advisory Board, described how the business cases for 5G rely on network slicing. It enables a single investment in a single platform to bring in all sorts of new revenues. The challenge will be to monetise those investments by apportioning the costs to the multiple services that can be supported. 

Testing 5G potential

Hanif also described some of the trials and testbeds, including the Worcestershire trial, the Bristol trial and the work at the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has earmarked funding for trials and testbeds such that they are open to all, very flexible to access and use and are consortia-based. The testbeds have been particularly aimed at startup software companies.  

Paul Adams, marketing director for Nokia UK & Ireland, in a presentation entitled Cynicism, truth and layered realities, stressed that 5G is not a platform just to sell more handsets, but something totally different. Whereas 4G was all about mobile broadband, 5G will be much more inclusive in that it has been driven by use cases leading to a multi-service capability.

Adams played a short video of the showcase in Bristol, which was a world first in terms of exposing the public to the potential of 5G. He stressed that interest in 5G across the industry is accelerating and the technology is becoming real. Docomo has announced commercial launch in 2020 and other providers are working to similar timescales. 

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I myself moderated the panel session, which was joined by John Gravett, head of the telecoms division at property firm Cluttons. Gravett outlined the role Cluttons plays by working with building management companies and developers to facilitate deployment of telecoms infrastructure – in particular in the context of 5G, the very large numbers of antennae that will be required, especially in building. Telecoms infrastructure needs to be viewed as a building utility in the same way as power, water and air-conditioning.

Questions from the audience were wide-ranging and included the role of Wi-Fi in 5G, whether there were any specific or new security concerns, the use of satellite – especially in the backhaul – whether the uplink speeds would be adequate, and the role of Ofcom in spectrum allocation and pricing.

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