NETWORK BUILDING: U.S. operators are set to spend billions in creating 5G networks.

Ten years after the launch of the first commercial 4G mobile networks, the next revolution in mobile communications is just around the corner. Across the world, telecommunications companies are gearing up for the rollout of fifth generation (5G) networks. Around 20 operators expect to launch 5G services during 2019, although it will probably be 2020 before the network infrastructure required to support widespread adoption is in place.

Industry players are spending eye-watering sums in the race to make 5G a reality. The U.K. raised £1.4 billion ($1.8 billion) in an auction of radio spectrum for 5G services last year. A bidding war in Italy saw its spectrum sell for €6.5 billion ($7.4 billion) in October. A similar auction in Germany this spring is expected to raise €5 billion ($5.7 billion), provided legal objections by operators can be overcome.

Those numbers are only part of the story, however. Once they have acquired the rights to parts of the radio spectrum, operators need to build the networks to use them. Consultancy Accenture estimates that U.S. operators will spend up to $275 billion over the next seven years to build their 5G networks.

With so much on the line, 5G technology must offer some compelling benefits and speed is the feature that usually receives the most attention. 5G networks will allow devices to download data at more than 1 gigabit per second (1gb/s). That is at least 10 to 100 times faster than today’s 4G services. At demonstrator sites, operators have wowed audiences with displays of bandwidth, simultaneously transmitting a 360-degree virtual reality display and 12 ultra-high-definition video streams over a single network connection, for example.

Speed limits

Those blistering speeds will allow users to do things that would not have been possible in the past, like downloading a large movie to their phone in just a couple of seconds, for example. However, when did you last need to download a whole film to your phone over a mobile network? The advent of cloud computing has dramatically reduced the need for most people to carry masses of data around in their pockets. A good 4G connection is more than adequate to stream high-quality video to the screen of a mobile device.

In reality, says Guido Weissbrich, Director of Network Planning and Optimization at mobile operator Vodafone, “It’s hard to imagine a use case that requires more than 1gigabyte per second (GB/s) in mobile, although the future may prove me wrong.” Instead, he points to three other dimensions that differentiate 5G networks from their predecessors: capacity, latency, and customization. The first two of those dimensions are evolutionary, he says, but the third is revolutionary.

Guido Weissbrich

Guido Weissbrich (born 1970) was appointed Vodafone Germany´s Director of Network Planning in April 2018 and leads the department, which ensures a high-quality, high-performance, convergent and competitive network platform for fixed and mobile network for consumer and business customers. Prior to his position, he was Head of Enterprise & Network Solution Engineering – leading Vodafone Germany’s commercial introduction of Voice over LTE as first operator in Europe. Guido has a long career in telecommunications with more than 15 years of experience. He started his career at Vodafone and also held the position of Director of Customer Operations at OnePhone Deutschland GmbH for 3.5 years.

DRIVE TIME: Autonomous vehicles are putting outdated networks under strain.

Capacity matters

Capacity is the reason network operators have no choice but to invest in 5G. The phenomenal success of smart devices, connected vehicles and the internet of things is putting today’s mobile data networks under increasing strain. “Right now, we’re experiencing 50 percent year-on-year growth in mobile data traffic,” says Weissbrich. “If you project that forward, then by 2022 or 2023 mobile operators will not be able to fulfill the demand for data services using the spectrum they have available, especially in densely populated areas.”

To be prepared for these challenges, Operators need to find ways to improve “spectral efficiency.” “It’s about getting more bandwidth out of the air,” says Weissbrich. “Capacity is related to speed, but we are really talking about being able to meet the demand in the areas that need it.”

Consultancy BCG estimates that improvements to 4G networks should roughly halve the cost of delivering each gigabyte of data traffic over the next six years, but then the savings will tail off. 5G technology, by contrast, could slash those costs by as much as 90 percent over the same period. So as well as boosting the capacity of mobile networks, 5G technology should also make them dramatically cheaper for operators over time.

Responsiveness

The second big change is latency. Today, when a user presses the “submit” button on a Google search, it takes around 50 milliseconds for the request to travel across the network to Google’s servers, and for the search result to make the return journey. In a 5G network, that round-trip time will fall to around one millisecond.

Those fractions of a second saved will make little difference to the casual web user, but they are fundamental in a wide range of other applications. A low-latency network is essential for the real-time control of equipment like autonomous forklifts or robots, the wireless control of production lines or complex industrial processes. Low-latency networks in deep harmony with other technologies like cameras, sensors or Wi-Fi are also considered an essential technology for self-driving cars, allowing them to communicate with each other quickly enough to make safety-critical decisions.

KEEPING IN TOUCH: Huawei Technologies unveils its first 5G foldable smartphone, which opens out to become a tablet.

Tailor-made

The third major dimension, and the one that Weissbrich describes as revolutionary, lies in the way operators will implement 5G networks. 5G technology allows for an approach called “network slicing.” This means that, rather than all users connecting to the same network, operators can carve out subnetworks with characteristics tuned to suit the specific requirements of their customers. A network slice aimed at consumers might emphasize fast download speeds and wide geographical coverage, for example. One designed for autonomous cars might prioritize low latency, and a network for internet-of-things devices might be slower, but optimized for low power consumption.

WIRED IN: Operators may need to build real-time data centers in preparation for 5G.

If you build it, will they come?

Of course, to turn potential into reality, operators like Vodafone need to actually start building their 5G networks. That is going to be a complex undertaking. Thousands of existing network base stations operators have to modify, for example with new “beam-forming active antennae” added alongside the existing 4G ­equipment. The connections between base stations and the rest of the network require upgrading too. Operators do that with a combination of high capacity optical fiber cables and microwave radio links.

In areas of high demand, operators will also need to install many additional antennae to create denser networks and deploy smaller base stations, more like a Wi-Fi router than a conventional mobile phone mast. These will provide extremely localized coverage, perhaps connecting users within a 50-meter radius.

However, antennae and cables are only part of the story. The high-speed, low latency networks required to manage communication with autonomous cars or industrial control systems will also require fundamental changes to upstream infrastructure. The overwhelming need for responsiveness in these applications is driving the development of the “edge cloud,” an approach to networked computing where tasks shift from centralized data centers to infrastructure located as close as practical to the point of use.

Operators see the appetite for edge infrastructure as a major business opportunity. Vodafone is planning to build real-time data centers, which it embeds in the extremities of its network, allowing them to deliver services without the need to shuttle data backward and forward over hundreds of kilometers of internet cables. Ultimately, this might involve computers installed inside a 5G base station on a corporate campus or industrial site, running dedicated applications for that particular customer.

TAKE FIVE: 5G converter technology on display at the 2018 Digital China Exhibition.

Who’s first?

In the short term, says Rob Siegers, President Global Technology, DHL, it is clear that operators are targeting business and industrial users as the first major customers for 5G services. “While the evolution from 2G to 4G had a big impact on the way end consumers used mobile phones and data services, it looks like the effect of 5G will be more incremental for them. At the moment, the major emerging opportunities from the technology are in new and expanded business applications.”

Vodafone, says Weissbrich, is already talking to business users about the installation of localized 5G networks on campus sites, or private 5G networks. The company has also opened a 5G mobility lab in Germany to support technical development work with automotive customers.

5G for the people

In addition, even as the technology moves into the consumer space, it looks as if mobile handsets will not be at the front of the line. Operators are excited about the potential of “fixed mobile broadband”: 5G connections that will deliver internet connectivity to homes and offices. That technology will allow mobile operators to compete with conventional broadband providers, and will also help to bring fast connections to locations that don’t currently have access to fixed line services, e.g. via fiber or cable.

So what about 5G in your pocket? It is coming, but not quite yet. Many manufacturers including Huawei, LG, Samsung and Xiaomi introduced 5G-ready smartphones at the Mobile World Congress in February. These phones are yet to come to the market.

There are plenty of hurdles that business, industry and operators have to overcome between now and then. 5G technology is right on the frontline of global political and trade tensions, with the U.S. and several of its allies raising security concerns about the use of Chinese equipment in critical network infrastructure.

Operators like Vodafone, meanwhile, need to ensure that their investments in 5G networks are a commercial as well as a technical success. In Europe, Weissbrich points out, high prices paid for radio spectrum licenses could leave operators with less to spend on network infrastructure. “We need to ensure that we create an environment that is investment-friendly,” he says. “5G is a worldwide competition, with the U.S. and China pushing very hard right now. If Europe wants to keep pace, it’s important that politicians, network operators, equipment manufacturers and industry players are all on the same page.” — Jonathan Ward

Right now, we’re experiencing 50 percent year-on-year growth in mobile data traffic.
Guido Weissbrich, Director of Network Planning and Optimization at Vodafone

5G in logistics

The logistics sector is just the sort of high-value 5G industrial client that network operators hope will become big customers of 5G technology. In addition, like many other business users, logistics players are likely to be attracted to 5G by characteristics that have little to do with peak download speeds.

In warehouse operations, the long range and low latency of 5G might be ideal for the control and coordination of emerging robotics and automation technologies, from autonomous forklifts to augmented reality systems that guide and support human workers.

Out in the wider world, meanwhile, 5G’s ability to provide tailored services could underpin a new generation of smart tags and tracking devices better suited to certain logistics operations than today’s equivalents. That could open the possibility of real-time indoor positioning as well as smart real-time tracking of a far larger array of products and packages, not just the most sensitive or high-value items. In other words, it enables us to accurately locate an asset both indoors in closed spaces as well as outdoors – and potentially globally.

“This is a truly exciting time in the evolution of mobile data,” says Siegers. “With the first of the networks going live this year, we are just beginning to see the possibilities of this technology. In the long term, 5G could play a fundamental role in changes that transform our industry and many others.” One example, he says, is the use of 5G networks to enable “truck platooning,” a technique where fleets of vehicles can operate close together on motorways and similar environments under autonomous control. Proponents of the approach say it will improve efficiency, reduce congestion and help to alleviate problems caused by driver shortages.

 

Published: April 2019

Images: David McNew/AFP/Getty Images; Winfried Rothermel/imago; Valéry Kloubert/Vodafone; Stringer/Imaginechina/ddp; Sipa Press/action press; Wei Peiquan Xinhua/eyevine/picture press