5G – still a long way to go

15 February 2019 | Natalie Bannerman

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5G rollouts are due to accelerate in 2019 and questions around the infrastructure needed to deliver the next-gen mobile technology remain. How is the wholesale market getting to grips and the oncoming swell of data and are we as close as we think to full-scale deployments?

Happy 2019 – the year of the pig according to the Chinese calendar. Or, the year of 5G, according to mobile operators. After years of predicting, trailing and developing, official rollouts of the technology are set to begin this year. But how influential will this next evolution of mobile technology be?

Roughly speaking 5G is expected to deliver at least ten times the speed of 4G, with improved latency, energy saving, cost reductions, higher system capacity as well as massive device connectivity. As result, it is set to impact a vast number of industry verticals with use cases that include smart vehicles and transport; sensor networks; greater availability of broadband in rural areas and decentralised healthcare, to name a few.

“This network will be so responsive that all usages are possible in real time, in virtual reality or in augmented reality,” explains Jean-Bernard Willem, SVP marketing and development, Orange International Carriers. “5G will also be a breakthrough network for the internet of things (IoT), able to connect huge numbers of objects with appropriate performance levels for each type of object and its use such as driverless cars, drones, sensors in smart cities, connected
robots in industry or the health sector.”

Despite the mission critical part operators will play in this new technology, the earliest adopters of 5G according to Hakan Ekmen, CEO of P3 Group, will be enterprises not carriers.

“As the majority of wholesale customers are discounters, we do not expect them to be in the first row with specific 5G services. We expect rather industry or large enterprise markets as key customers in the beginning of 5G,” he says.

Spectrum

The GSMA expects 5G connections to reach 1.1 billion, some 12% of total mobile connections, by the year 2025. It adds that to deploy it, requires a “set of harmonised spectrum bands” as such, the closer we get to rolling out 5G the greater the pressure on little bit of spectrum we do have. Adam Leach, director of emerging technology at Nominet, calls for changes in the way 5G spectrum is managed, a lesson learned from the days of 3G and 4G.

“With 3G and 4G, auctioning off chunks of the mobile spectrum on an exclusive basis proved inefficient,” says Leach. “With 4G today, only 48% of the mobile spectrum is ever able to be utilised at one time – the same model and approach should be avoided with 5G if we want it to deliver on its promise to be the foundation for a new generation of connected devices and autonomous cars, factories and farms.”

His suggestion is a sharing model “supported by a database would allow providers access to the full breadth of the spectrum” therefore allowing full use of the network and much improved capacity.

Interestingly, Juniper Networks’ Ian Goetz, chief architect of mobile solutions, says that “initial 5G New Radio builds will focus on adding 5G at 3.5GHz to the existing 4G base station sites”, resulting he says in base station upgrades and backhaul capacity from 1G to 10G or even 2 × 10G.

Infrastructure and fibre

We cannot get fibre everywhere, numerous industry figures tell me. With speeds and capacity increasing, copper cabling is proving less and less effective in deliver high-speed internet connectivity, leaving fibre as the best supporting infrastructure for 5G networks.

According to International Telecommunications Union’s 2016 report, Trends in Telecommunication Reform, capital investments related to fibre infrastructure are expected to total $144.2 billion between 2014 and 2019, driven largely by the advent of 5G. As 2019 is now upon us, do we now have enough fibre to meet demand?

“For now, yes,” says Eric LeCalvez, vice president of global telecom strategic clients and telecom segment of Vertiv in EMEA. “Capacity will need to grow as the gigabit appetite grows. The content providers will want to fortify their market position by making more immersive environments for their consumers.”

However, this is still a ways off and will happen in phases. Gaming for example LeCalvez says will move to a cloud native environment between now and 2022, requiring a service latency of under 20ms in order to keep the gamers happy. As for services like IoT, automation and relaunches of AR&VR, towards the year 2025 “the fibre will need to be pushed out further,” he says.

Mobile backhaul

One of the key developments to arise over the last 12 months has been the advancement of 5G standards as well as burgeoning 5G wireless backhaul/xHaul. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), through its millimetre Wave Transmission Industry Specification Group (mWT ISG) published its GR mWT 012 report in December 2018, detailing a few prominent 5G backhaul/xHaul scenarios.

“ETSI’s document expresses the information needed about backhauling 5G in a clear and comprehensive manner,” comments Willem. “It not only takes into account the challenges and promises expected with 5G, but also provides a very practical way to move forward and help various players plan the future of their businesses.”

Adding his thoughts, Goetz says, “Having a wireless or microwave backhaul capability will be of great benefit to 5G as it reduces the need for full fibre and the logistical difficulties that it creates.”

mWT ISG aren’t the only ones exploring wireless backhaul, Ericsson and Deutsche Telekom recently completed trials where they achieved transmission speeds of 40Gbps and a round-trip latency of less than 100ms.

In general, a change is on the way for mobile backhaul and unsurprisingly, it includes a lot more capacity, but also leverages the likes of SDN and NFV. According to the GSMA report, The 5G Era, 5G will build on the ongoing evolution of 4G with technologies like SDN/NFV, Massive MIMO and carrier aggregation.

“There is expected to be a step change in the infrastructure from the current MPLS-based backhaul with a capacity between 100Mbps and 1Gbps, to an evolved network delivery using SDN and NFV technologies, with typical connectivity being at least 10Gbps,” adds Stuart Wallis, head of service providers at MLL Telecom.

Perhaps the solution to 5G backhaul lies in more of a hybrid approach, using both fibre and wireless solutions in tandem. Fibre is still the best option where dark fibre is available or where it is cost-effective to do so but as there are large chunks of spectrum available in the mmWave band, Kashif Hussain, director of wireless solutions at Viavi Solutions, says, “We expect to see more deployments of hybrid fibre and wireless backhaul solutions”.

Overhyped

For every few that believe 5G to be game changer, there are just as many who are sceptical about the impact the technology will have. Fundamentally, an argument could be made that 5G is merely a natural progression of its predecessors and that given that many operators are still investing in 4G, 5G is far from on the horizon.

Shooting straight from the hip, Paul Fawcett, mobility product manager at Maintel, says “reality check – don’t expect 5G to change your life this year. It just won’t happen.” As far as he’s concerned just like 3G and 4G, 5G has become a bit of a buzzword, and it won’t “magically appear tomorrow” because mobile operators are still investing in it with trial sites just starting to go live.

The GSMA forecasts operator revenues to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 2.5% to reach $1.3 trillion in 2025. Nevertheless, Professor William Webb, independent consultant and author of The 5G Myth, is still apprehensive, saying that while 5G sounds exciting there is still no business case for this technology, leaving operators struggling to get a return on their investment.

“5G has been launched with unprecedented hope for its ability to be a game-changing technology. Those who need to pay for 5G – the mobile operators – are struggling to see the business case, says Webb. “They do not anticipate that any new applications that emerge will materially change their revenue, which has been in gentle decline for the last few years.”

He goes on to explain that 5G is likely to only be deployed in the denser urban areas to begin with and in the frequencies it will use will only allow for shorter ranges, therefore limiting 5G’s ability to deliver any new and exciting applications that typically rely on widespread coverage.

So the jury’s out. While 5G appears to offer limitless opportunities the consensus is we are still not there yet. Lack of a business case, limited technology and ongoing trials mean that while we are closer than ever we’ve still got a ways to go. But don’t lose hope, Fawcett says to watch this space, “5G is coming – but certainly not this year”.