Paving the way to 5G

5G

With David Dungay reporting back from Mobile World Congress 2017 (MWC) in this issue, editor Ian Hunter attempts to match up the Barcelona hyperbole surrounding 5G with the reality of network development and an anticipated start of network spectrum auctions by Ofcom this year. Prior to MWC we receive wave after wave of press releases from organisations fighting to get news of their latest products and services in the press so that the 100,000 visitors to the show make a beeline to their exhibition stands for a demonstration.

This year was no exception and high on the list of applications and demonstrations to see was anything to do with 5G, the latest in the line of progression that mobile/wireless communications is set to take.

As the result, the question had to be asked: ‘Where are we with 5G today?’

Mobile Evolution

All mobile data has to travel on a frequency band and those bands have different properties, with some carrying data further than others and some being better at passing through walls and other obstacles.

There’s also varying amounts of different frequency bands available, all of which adds up to a big puzzle as to what bands 5G will use.

As 5g.co.uk says, “It needs to be able to access enough spectrum to keep up with the super high demands that are expected of it. But the spectrum also needs to be versatile enough for all different usage scenarios, which will likely mean using multiple different frequency bands.

While not all the 5G spectrum bands have been finalised yet there’s a lot of research taking place and we’re narrowing down on the bands we’re likely to see used.”

Meanwhile, in January this year, a few weeks before the MWC kicked off in Barcelona, the UK industry regulator called on industry to help lay the foundations for the UK’s next generation of wireless communications. In essence, Ofcom was asking industry to help plan for the future spectrum requirements of 5G.

5G mobile communications are expected to be able to use very high frequency spectrum – the raw material that underpins wireless services.

Ofcom says that this spectrum, likely to be above 6 GHz, could support a variety of uses, ranging from financial trading and entertainment to gaming and holographic projections, with the potential to support very high demand users in busy areas, like city centres.

5G mobile is expected to be capable of delivering extremely fast data speeds – perhaps 10 to 50 Gbit/s – compared with today’s average 4G download speed of 15 Mbit/s.

5G services are likely to use large blocks of spectrum to achieve the fastest speeds, which are difficult to find at lower frequencies. Therefore, higher frequency bands, above 6 GHz, for example, will be important.

Planning for the future

The timeframe for the launch of 5G services is uncertain, although commercial applications could emerge by 2020, subject to research and development and international agreements for aligning frequency bands. It is important that Ofcom does the groundwork now to understand how these frequencies might be used to serve citizens and consumers in future. Ofcom is today asking industry to help plan for the future spectrum requirements of 5G.

Spectrum above 6 GHz currently supports various uses, from scientific research to satellite broadcasting and weather monitoring. One of Ofcom’s core roles is to manage the limited supply of spectrum, taking into account current and future demands and allowing these different services to exist alongside each other.

Steve Unger, Ofcom Acting Chief Executive, said: “We want the UK to be a leader in the next generation of wireless communications. Working with industry, we want to lay the foundations for the UK’s next generation of wireless communications.

5G must deliver a further step change in the capacity of wireless networks, over and above that currently being delivered by 4G. No network has infinite capacity, but we need to move closer to the ideal of there always being sufficient capacity to meet consumers’ needs.”

Philip Marnick, Ofcom Spectrum Group Director, said: “We want to explore how high frequency spectrum could potentially offer significant capacity for extremely fast 5G mobile data.

This could pave the way for innovative new mobile services for UK consumers and businesses.”

Ofcom is seeking views on the use of spectrum above 6 GHz that might be suitable for future mobile communication services.

Acquiring Spectrum

UK networks will acquire the majority of their 5G spectrum through Ofcom auctions. A number of these are likely to take place over the coming years, as the regulator frees up ever more spectrum for 5G use. The first major UK 5G auction will take place in 2017.

As 5g.co.uk says, it’s probable that the networks will also repurpose some of their existing spectrum for 5G use, as we’ve seen in the past with 4G. But given the speed and capacity requirements they’ll all need a lot more spectrum than they currently have, so purchasing some from Ofcom will be essential.

No UK network offers 5G yet, and initial public trials probably won’t take place until 2018 at the earliest. However, according to many observers it looks like EE is in a strong position to take an early lead.

EE already holds a dominant position in the UK in terms of 4G network infrastructure – upon which early 5G efforts will rely – and market share. Also, in August of last year, EE announced that it had teamed up with Nokia to conduct initial 5G trials and use cases.

One potential drawback for EE – and a likely boost for O2, Vodafone and Three – is that it looks set to be hamstrung in this year’s 5G auction. Ofcom has proposed that EE not be permitted to bid for immediately usable spectrum in the 2.3Ghz band. This is because EE (which is now owned by BT) already holds the largest proportion of useable spectrum at 45%.

Ofcom’s proposal is intended to promote greater competition and a more level playing field during the early stages of 5G. It will also encourage EE to focus its resources on developing its higher frequency band provision – which is where the future of 5G really lies.

UK 5G Innovation Centre

Research and development of 5G services in the UK is being spearheaded by the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC).

5GIC brings together leading academic experts and key industry partners, including Telefonica, Vodafone, regional SMEs and the EM3 Local Enterprise Partnership.

Together they form the largest UK academic research centre dedicated to the development of next generation mobile and wireless communications.

With a state-of-the art test bed, the 5GIC is working towards a fast and flexible infrastructure capable of handling an ever-increasing demand for mobile data and providing connectivity for future technologies, such as the Internet of Things.

Seeking to commercialise 5G by 2020, the Centre is driving forward economic development and seeks to influence the homes, workplaces and cities of the future.

Worth noting is that 5GIC has stated a 5G vision of ‘always having sufficient rate to give the user the impression of infinite capacity’ and preliminary figures being discussed within the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), suggest peak data rates in the range from 10 – 50 Gbit/s and latency of 1 millisecond!

According to Professor Rahim Tafazolli, Director of the 5GIC, 5G is a ‘transformative set of technologies that will radically change our private and professional lives with applications such as remote healthcare, wireless robots and driverless cars’.

Adrian Baschnonga, EY Lead Telecommunications Analyst, told us, “The proposed timetable for 5G trials and commercial launch will be welcomed by mobile operators. It builds on the recent news of planned government investment in the next generation of mobile technology.

However, industry consensus on spectrum allocation will be vital if 5G rollout is to remain on track, while operators should also carefully assess the specific services that 5G enables in tandem with their technology trials.”

Ed Says…

The fact that Ofcom is set to start 5G spectrum auctions this year will tend to accelerate industry focus on the next generation of wireless technology. As soon as service providers start spending serious money on these 5G table stakes their accountants will be firing the starting gun on the race to deliver a return on investment. A commercialisation target of 2020 seems a way off but in reality will arrive in the blink of an eye so with 5G being heralded as a serious game changer expect a higher degree of media focus to be on show from now on.