5G: now you’ve got it, what’s it for?
Operators are rolling out 5G networks across the world, so what will they be used for? It’s more than just faster broadband on your mobile handset. Alan Burkitt-Gray talks to someone who knows
It’s great to have a new technology, but it’s often a challenge to know what to do with it, at least in the early days.
We’re in this position with 5G now, as the industry rolls out new networks in Asia, in the US and even, but slowly, in Europe. In 2020, we’re still in the position where it’s just a better mobile broadband service than the one we had before (in my case, still have). A friend who works for Huawei in China has just been on holiday in the Gobi Desert, and posted some stunning pictures of the scenery, including, in one, a 5G celltower.
But it’s more than that. Or it has to be, if it is to justify all the investment the technology vendors and the operators have made and will continue to make for the rest of this decade.
It’s not an entirely new position to be in. As Olaf Swantee says in this interview with him, a decade ago people were asking what the point of 4G was. And they’re asking him now what’s the point of 1Gbps.
But go back before that and you’ll swiftly come across many other cases of small-mindedness, in telecoms and elsewhere. There was the case of the British government minister who, in the 1870s, said London didn’t need telephones as there were enough messenger boys. A century later the couple who lived in the flat below me in London didn’t want a phone at home: they each had one on their desk at work, so wasn’t that enough?
In the mobile era, it’s new applications that have driven usage and demand – and desire to become users of the technology.
To find out how it will go in 5G, I spoke to Nick Sampson, who is director of wireless access and core network standardisation at Orange. He’s also co-editor of a new visionary white paper from the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, one of those brilliant organisations that demonstrate day by day just what a globally cooperative industry telecoms is.
The NGMN Alliance draws its members from operators across the world – from A1 Telekom Austria and Bell Canada via China Mobile and Chunghwa Telecom – that’s the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan round the same table – to US Cellular and Vodafone.
And there’s an even longer list of vendors that support them in their work of steering the industry from generation to generation. Whisper it quietly in the White House, but Ciena, Cisco and Facebook work side by side with Huawei and ZTE in the NGMN Alliance – plus most of the others, including Ericsson and Nokia, NEC and Mavenir, Intel and HPE.
The NGMN Alliance, having set out the industry’s requirements for 5G – and 4G before that – is now looking at the next phase. There is a triangle of requirements, Sampson tells me: an enhancement of broadband thanks to 5G, ultrareliable low latency, and massive use of the internet of things (IoT).
Phase one, what some of us have now, was enhanced mobile broadband: more data and more capacity, mainly for the consumer market. “And deployments so far reflect that,” he says.
But phase two, what is to follow, will bring that triple combination, opening up new market segments, new revenue streams and new use cases. These new markets “will be industries from which 5G can bring new value”, says Sampson. “That’s the next step of 5G – driving the realism of these markets.”
But which sectors? He lists health, transport, manufacturing, agriculture, education and – if you remember what it is – tourism. “Things like augmented reality and virtual reality to supplement your experience as a tourist,” he muses, “either in a museum or in a town.”
The question for operators, he said, is: “How do we evolve our networks to meet the requirements?” The trouble is that vertical markets “all have their own requirements. And they’re different, though some overlap.”
He cites one example that Orange is working on. It could only be Orange: an application for vineyards and wine cellars. “But there are others, where low latency is needed. We’ve tried to emphasise where the focus needs to be. Is it practical?”
The key features, he notes, are that services will be virtual, with edge computing, and that telcos will operate in the cloud. “And then there are things like network sharing that will give us the ability to meet requirements on demand.”
A practical example: a rapid response medical team, which needs to be flown out to a disaster area and provided with a full set of telecoms services within hours. It’s the sort of thing that Télécoms sans Frontières does all the time, using satellites, but transposed to the 5G era.
“They could have things like edge computing and network slicing. It doesn’t have to be a dedicated network, but it should be able to feel like a network dedicated to them. Virtualisation and network slicing can be done dynamically, tailored to their special needs.”
There is a diversity in the range of possible needs for 5G, “but at the macro level there is a lot of synergy”, he tells me. In the NGMN Alliance, “there is a general consensus about what will be needed – on virtualisation, on cloud applications, on the need for open and interoperable interfaces”.
There is a real push, says Sampson, to make this happen. The industry has been pushing for such open standards before. “We got 80% of the way, but the last 20% was the hardest.” Now, he hopes, it is possible.