A vote of confidence in the future of 5G

It’s election time again in the UK, the third time the country has gone to the national polls in as many years. While we might be reaching our limit with the party-political squabbling and the frenzy of a media desperately trying to whip up some interest in an election-fatigued nation, it’s still a good opportunity to take a look at where the parties stand on some of the bigger digital and IT issues.   

Whichever party is elected into office on 8 June, its term will coincide with a key period of development in the birth of the new 5G network.  Here’s my take on what the parties are saying on digital in general and I’ll also look ahead at how development of the 5G network is likely to progress over the coming years.   

Broadband   

The three traditional Westminster parties are all committed to introducing faster broadband to the UK if they’re elected into government. The Conservative manifesto outlines plans to give every household and business access to superfast broadband (defined as 24Mbps) by 2020, while Labour has pledged to deliver speeds of 30Mbps to all households by 2022. Labour will also ‘on day one’ ask the National Infrastructure Commission to report on how to bring ‘ultrafast’ 300Mbps broadband to the country over the course of the next 10 years. The Liberal Democrats has also offered 30Mbps speeds by 2022 for every property in the UK, with unlimited usage.   

Data protection and security 

The recent cyber attack on the NHS computer systems has pushed security and data protection higher up the news and political agenda than ever before. The Conservative Party has announced it will establish a data use and ethics committee to advise government and regulators.  It also aims to speed up introduction of a new data protection law on safe standards in data use. Labour is less detailed in its proposals but makes a general pledge to maintain data protection rules to protect personal privacy.  It also references plans for a cyber security charter for companies working with the Ministry of Defence plus more effective policing of cyber crime. The Liberal Democrats has announced its intention to establish a digital bill of rights to help us - the public - protect our own information, civil liberties and personal data. It is also opposed to mass collection of communications data and will invest in greater security and intelligence to protect against cyber attacks. 

5G   

The development, arrival and rollout of a 5G network will dominate our industry over the next decade. Has it made it onto the radar of the main political parties? If so what can we expect from them? Labour makes a commitment to ‘invest to ensure all urban areas, as well as major roads and railways, have uninterrupted 5G coverage’, but it offers no indication of a timescale within which it is hoping to achieve this. The Conservative Party gives a little more substance and schedule, saying it will ‘continue to release more spectrum from public sector use to allow greater private sector access and will begin the roll-out of a new 5G network, providing gigaspeed connection to your smart phone. We plan to have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027’ it states.   

This is encouraging because if the UK is to embrace all the opportunities that 5G will offer, it will need the support of central government as well as the drive of innovative businesses and network providers. Earlier this year, the Government outlined plans for a new National 5G Innovation Network, which will receive £16 million in funding to work with research institutions on trialling and speeding up development of the technology. There will also be a team within government tasked with overseeing the 5G programme with funding for more trials set to be awarded on a competitive basis. The UK’s 5G Innovation Centre, based in the University of Surrey and employing 170 researchers, will also play a key role over the coming years in acting as a test bed for 5G.   

The 5G present 

At present, 5G has fixed wireless access because operators are only using the millimetre wave spectrum. This is a very high frequency spectrum – from 6 to 100 GHz – and it’s for point-to-point wireless communication. However, network operators who are vying to be the first to develop the 5G network - along with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) -are speeding up the schedule by allowing 5G NSA (Non-Standalone), which allows them to write their own 5G spec. 5G can be deployed using the LTE (Long-Term Evolution) core. When the core interface is upgraded, this will then result in 5G SA (Standalone). While the ultimate introduction of the finished article is some way away yet, the initial deployments will begin in the next 12 months. The 3GPP standards, 5G Mobile (NSA), then 5G Mobile (SA) will follow over the next three years.    

In terms of 5G’s current capabilities, the millimetre wave spectrum has its pros and cons. The disadvantages are that it is poor at penetrating buildings, people or other obstacles like leaves, windows, water and so on. The advantages are that there’s a reduced need for last-mile trenches and wired lines and the super-high frequencies employed are perfect for carrying large amounts of data, and at great speed (up to several gigabits per second). It’s also excellent for point-to-point, line-of-sight communications, and fixed deployments.   

The 5G future   

By 2020, it’s likely that we will have a fixed and mobile wireless 5G network in place and the potential it will bring is huge. It will provide the basis for a massive Internet of Things due to exponential improvements in device connection density, low cost and an enhanced cellular footprint. It will allow mission-critical control with a decrease in latency to as low as one millisecond, and a level of reliability where no packets are dropped. With high throughput and a greater capacity for users and data rates, 5G will also deliver a significantly enhanced mobile broadband network.   

We may not yet know who will be the party in power for the next five years but whoever lands the majority in the UK elections on 8 June, it’s certain that their term in office will run concurrently with the development and launch of a new 5G network and all the benefits this will bring.

Hubert Da Costa, VP EMEA, Cradlepoint    

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