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From here to 5G – plotting a realistic path

As 5G moves from concept to reality – industry preparations are getting more detailed, more involved while the hype is getting more media coverage and garnering more interest.

By Ellie Burns

5G mobile technology is a potential area of investment for companies ranging from mobile operators to infrastructure vendors to device makers. Industry experts are forecasting 1.4 billion 5G connections by 2025 including $269 billion in revenue from 5G services.  All parties are looking to secure a piece of the future of mobile communications.  Globally, the race is on — 5G feasibility trials and tests of all types from fixed to mobile are underway, and within two years we should see the initial public roll-out of 5G somewhere in the world – Korea or the US perhaps?

The hype around the technology and all it promises is infectious; however, in the UK the complex nature of the mobile networks and government regulations may pose challenges for a significant 5G roll-out in the UK in the coming years (the government is targeting 2020). For example, operators currently disagree with Ofcom in terms of how spectrum should be auctioned for 5G purposes. This now includes legal actions taken by EE and Three; the consequence of which could push back 5G licensing and ultimately commercial deployment of 5G services.

The route to ubiquitous 5G in the UK has the vested interest of many different parties and will need operators, regulators, local/central government departments and technology innovators to come together to devise a solution that meets the ambitions of the industry for more reliable, high speed coverage and which provides real benefits to consumers.

Today in the UK

All four of the UK’s major operators have built their network reach on a legacy of 2G or 3G connectivity with 4G being the most recent technology to have been added on top of those. Operators are also looking at new and innovative ways to improve connectivity; for example, earlier this year O2 announced the roll-out of a ‘small cell 4G WiFi’ network in the city of London, which would allow anyone with a WiFi device to have connectivity using O2’s 4G network for backhaul. Also, EE is working on a somewhat unusual yet intriguing project to deploy 4G drones and blimps to tackle network congestion at events and in difficult-to-reach areas.  So how widespread is 4G coverage?  Our recent network testing has found that while 4G network coverage is usually available in the UK’s major cities, the UK’s motorways still have a lot of room for improvement. In our motorway benchmarking tests, our devices were only able to connect to a 4G network 61% of the time.

Operators are actively bolstering their 4G networks while considering options for what to do with their antiquated 2G networks.  Operators are also actively contemplating how to integrate 5G technology into their infrastructure and this is where it gets really challenging.  Adding 5G will further increase the complexity of their networks, device compatibility, and service offerings.  These factors, combined with 5G’s small cell and network backhaul deployment requirements, translate into increased infrastructure, capital investments, and running costs.  However, all operators are taking steps toward 5G deployment – whether it’s EE lab testing 5G, Three looking at fixed wireless deployments, or O2 building out LTE-A (4.5G) small cell networks as a precursor to 5G, UK operators are pressing ahead.

5G partnering with 4G – autonomous car example

Taking the new use case of ‘connected’ or ‘driverless cars, a 5G mobile network will likely handle both end-user and backhaul transmission of critical mapping and vehicle-to-vehicle data; however, a 4G/LTE connection can still be used for software updates and vehicle-to-dealership communication. Meanwhile, a near-field ‘radio’ network like DSRC (a two-way short-range form of wireless communications) may also be utilised for vehicle-to-vehicle communication. Getting these networks to work together to ensure data is being shared on demand will require cooperation and communication between any number of operators, service providers, and tech firms.

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Getting from here to there

On the plus side, the government is approaching 5G head-on and getting involved in some of the finer details of deployment in the early stages. For example, the government is funding some of the initial 5G-related testing and R&D being undertaken in the UK. Close collaboration between network operators and local authorities will be necessary to ensure the roll-out of 5G goes as smoothly as possible.

In another example, network operators were often held hostage by land owners when they wanted to install a new radio mast; however, regulations that manage this process are improving and not a moment too soon. 5G networks will require a new approach as thousands of new small cells will need to be installed on buildings and in street furniture across the UK.  These regulatory improvements will help but more needs to be done to facilitate a cost-effective deployment; for example, amendments to enable the use of “public” furniture where practical (such as allowing operators to install masts on government or local authority buildings, enabling mobile operators to roll out new services quicker). Without a comprehensive government strategy and related regulatory framework, initial 5G deployment could stretch out for years, something which would make the financial case for 5G difficult to stomach for network operators.

While there is still much to be decided regarding the roll out of 5G networks, one thing is certain – when we are finally able to use networks with the promised levels of low latency and gigabit throughputs, it will open up a new world of possibilities. However, to ensure the UK remains a digital pioneer, preparations need to begin now, well ahead of initial roll-outs.

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