Where wireless, network infrastructure and data centre leaders collaborate for 5G deployment
A new event is designed to help all sectors of the business benefit from 5G and develop opportunities in new markets. Alan Burkitt-Gray introduces the Communications Infrastructure Summit.
26 June 2019 (Add to Calendar)
The world is about to start on the biggest investment programme in telecoms for – well, probably ever. Driven by the development of 5G wireless technology, the industry will be completely rethinking and rebuilding telecoms infrastructure to deliver a complete new range of services. The first 5G services are going into operation now, which is why 2019 is the perfect time to bring together all the providers of this new infrastructure to discuss how they’ll work together. That’s why four allied events and publishing businesses, Capacity Media, BroadGroup, Layer123 and TowerXchange are holding the first Communications Infrastructure Summit on 26 June at the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, Georgia. To help us with this and future Communications Infrastructure events, we have asked a number of senior executives from across the industry to become members of a Communications Infrastructure Leaders’ Forum. I spoke to some of them, and to some other significant people in the industry, to put 5G into context.
First, what services?
Well, did you predict the huge importance of text messaging when 2G phones arrived in the 1990s?
Did you ever think you’d see people tapping into and out of train stations or onto buses in London using Apple Pay or getting on planes with boarding cards on their phones?
Or using their phones to find their way round cities or to share so many pictures of cats? Me neither. We will be surprised by some of the new 5G-powered services, but we already have an idea what a few of them might be.
For a start, automated factories, autonomous vehicles and AI-assisted surgery. Just that small selection tells you why the networks will need redesigning – you can’t beat physics and the speed of light. For accurate control with tight tolerances you need a fast response – and that means tiny cell sites almost everywhere with computing power and data storage at the very edge, close to where it’s used. That leads automatically to a need for dense fibre networks to connect them all together – or perhaps millimetre waves linking the same small cell sites. To achieve near-universal coverage, we’ll need a mixture of tiny cell sites in plastic boxes on the wall to even more of today’s macro towers. They’ll be operating on a wide range of spectrum, from the bands that were a few years ago delivering TV chat shows and sports matches to whole counties to those that engineers were still playing with on lab benches – still are in some cases. Think of the nifty software you’ll need to control that. At the 26 June event, executives from the different sectors of the industry we serve will meet to carve new relationships for the services that will be enabled by the 5G era. “I think this 5G event is very timely,” says Carl Roberts, the former Epsilon executive –before that, with Verizon. Trichur – better known as Vish – Vishwanathan, CenturyLink’s senior director for the Asia-Pacific region, agrees. “I think one of the most interesting aspects of what you are doing with the Communications Infrastructure Leaders’ Forum is igniting a discussion within the industry on the importance of 5G rollout and how this could be more effective in its implementation and application through collaborative efforts by the various players in the eco-system.”
Edge of networks
This will have an effect at all levels, says Roberts. “At the basic level lots of new subsea cable systems are going into service. And 5G will move content to the edge of networks.” High bandwidth will be needed for autonomous cars, he adds. “We need software to operate at various levels.” Software-defined networks (SDNs) will enable users to turn services on and off more easily, he notes. But software will have other uses – because it’s not just autonomous vehicles that will be controlled by 5G. There will be drones under 5G control that will be used to deliver goods. Some people are even suggesting drone taxis. “Calls drop off today,” says Roberts. “You don’t want that with a drone or an autonomous car. You’ll need huge changes in the reliability of networks. That extra infinitesimally small percentile uptime gets to be more crucial. That’s where the software will come in, because humans can’t react quickly enough. Drone taxis will need air traffic control.” At CenturyLink, Vishwanathan agrees. “Some of the crucial success factors are high-speed, ultra-high reliable networks and network slicing, especially when it comes to certain critical applications using both mobile and fixed 5G wireless technology to maintain on-demand response for business needs.” He adds: “Today, the digital economy runs on applications and the data they contain – applications that demand real-time data processing and continuous, uninterrupted availability. 5G certainly represents an opportunity for CenturyLink to deliver that end-toend user experience for our customers in a secure, cost-effective, high performing connectivity manner.” Ibrahim Gedeon, CTO of Telus in Canada, warns that, despite all the excitement about 5G, “there are a whole bunch of things that are not there yet. Piloting has not been done yet”. But he notes that, with the need for low-latency services, “all of us have to start looking to the edge”: The edge is where small cells will communicate with those autonomous vehicles or, in factories, with machine tools. “Cloud has to have edge functions,” says Gedeon, but “telcos have a big advantage – the central offices can be used to provide a mobile edge”.
Speed of Light
It’s back to the fundamental physics of the speed of light. If you need to grab your data from a data centre 500km or 1,000km away, that will inevitably add to the delays that might in some cases be dangerous. Every 150km adds a millisecond to the round trip time. Keep your data in what used to be the local telephone exchange and you slice the latency to microseconds. Many of the key performance indicators (KPIs) for 5G are about reducing latency, says Dan Warren, who is head of 5G research at Samsung’s R&D Institute in the UK. He is a former senior director of technology at the GSMA, the mobile industry trade association, and even earlier was a network architect at Vodafone. With 5G there are “very broad shifts in terms of what you’re trying to do”, he says. KPIs and service level agreements will become a key part of future contracts for 5G services. Commercial and legal teams will look at these contracts “with fear”, he notes. It’s not just that production processes will be hit if things go wrong, “but people die”, he warns. “We are building something unlike any operator has built before,” he adds. “It will have to be fully reliable for days and you are integrating new technology into vertical industries that operate on long lead times.” Roberts picks up a similar point. “Layered over all of this is a legal perspective,” he says. “There will be increasingly legal issues. Who’s responsible for what? If taxi goes into a wall, there will be ramifications.” Networks will be expected to operate with ultrahigh reliability – putting new demands on all elements, including the terminals, the radio network, the network equipment, the fibre infrastructure, the edge computing and the software that’s behind it all. “You’ll need disaster recovery. If there’s a fault, backup solutions will have to be rerouted. That means operators will need to have visibility over routing – so if one route is down they will be able to use another that’s still operational,” says Roberts. “You will need completely new set of parameters.” But that’s a positive, he adds. “It’s a huge opportunity for a new set of premium services. This is why all the actors in the communications infrastructure world need to be aligned and understand the work role they play.” Warren picks up another point. “A key benefit of 5G is that it will give operators access to new spectrum bands. This new spectrum will be used to increase capacity, to give a higher level of bandwidth. And one significant difference of 5G over LTE is reduced latency.” Yes, it’s not just to avoid autonomous vehicles killing their passengers and other road users, but “as an enabler of consumer games”, says Warren. “This is quite a big tick. It’s a market that’s been growing for some time.”
He quotes a figure that he’s been given by a senior technology executive of a major UK operator: in the late afternoon and early evening in the middle of the week fully 20% of the traffic on this company’s network is generated from Fortnite, the online video game released in 2017. “It’s comparable with the impact of YouTube on the early days of 3G,” says Warren. So, just as neither you nor I predicted the impact of SMS on 2G networks, or Facebook on 3G, or digital ticketing on 4G, almost no one so far has looked at the potential impact of high-speed multiplayer games on 5G. People will pay for fast, reliable, lowlatency connections to edge data centres so they can play Fortnite and its 2021 or 2022 equivalent. Drones, vehicles and machine tools will be important to the 5G economy, but perhaps it’s games that will get all the elements of the telecoms industry to work together to exploit the next generation of mobile.