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Delivering the “Connected Future”

(Image credit: Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)

The advent of 5G is set to bring with it phenomenal change – far from promising faster and swifter connectivity, next generation networks will underpin the innovations which have come to dominate industry headlines. From smart cities to powering IoT services to improving voice and data services, the introduction of 5G is set to have an impact few of us can yet truly fathom.   

In all this excitement, many are attempting to gear up for 5G, several studies have been published that highlight the preparation necessary for the next generation of fixed and wireless networks. One of these is a report, commissioned by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), an organisation under the UK Treasury, which aims to understand the extent to which existing UK private and public telecommunications infrastructure is prepared for the next generation of fixed and wireless networks, and particularly the advent of 5G services. The study, led by LS Telcom and supported by mobile technology developer, InterDigital Europe, along with WHP Telecoms Ltd., formed part of a 3-part series which fed into a final overarching report published by the NIC and entitled “Connected Future”. 

The report found significant gaps in capability between existing infrastructure and the requirements of future networks and technologies, outlining a number of technology drivers that will be essential in order to bring 5G to the table.   

Continuing densification

Previous mobile generations have shown that the vast majority of wireless capacity gains come down to ever denser cell sites. Given the high network capacity gains needed for 5G use cases such as mobile broadband, self-driving cars and virtual reality, to name just a few, this trend is only set to increase. Consequently, site buildout will need to continue, even accelerate, in a similar manner to that of previous mobile technology generations. 

Fixed-mobile convergence to tackle service discontinuity 

While increased site buildouts drive densification, not-spots still exist simply because a specific radio access technology does not always reach a user at a particular point. Typical short link and WLAN (wireless local area network) connectivity has consistently outperformed 3GPP technology, used for wider area connectivity, which thus highlights the need for fixed-mobile convergence that goes beyond current efforts in the mobile industry. This is particularly necessary when it comes to harnessing advances in both cellular as well as WLAN connectivity, as driven by the major standard organisations in their respective space, i.e. 3GPP and IEEE.    

Capacity gains not only through more fibre but also through localization

Localising traffic through content delivery networks and local points of presence is an already well-executed practice to bring suitable experiences to end users. This trend is going to increase significantly for enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) but also to satisfy demands for future low latency use cases. With this, localisation will see the co-location of storage and computing at cell sites or in regional data centres. Regions here could be as small as street blocks, while others could extend to parts of towns or boroughs. In addition to content, computation can also be localised, particularly in the context of managing and controlling digital assets in smart city environments. One example is body cameras worn by police in Bristol, which will drive the need for storing and preprocessing the deluge of media content being generated.   

Local capacity gain

Although densification and localisation is expected to provide the lion’s share of the 5G capacity gains required, there is still a need for a significant increase of local throughput capability. This requirement will drive the development of new access technologies such as those in mmWave bands and consequently, the use of new radio spectrum. The report also highlighted the need for the “re-farming” of existing spectrum (below 6GHz) to unlock more capacity (this is the process where spectrum previously used by now redundant generations of technology is re-used in new applications). Local capacity gain is not limited to wireless but also includes fibre-to-the-home rollouts, particularly in converged scenarios. In light of this, emphasis should be placed on further proliferation of fibre access in individual dwellings, an area where the UK is particularly lagging behind in comparison to other countries, which could significantly limit 5G capabilities in urban as well as rural environments. 

5G access 

In addition to highlighting key 5G technology drivers, the NIC also examined issues relating to infrastructure, such as mobile coverage along motorways; difficulties faced in deploying 5G services along public transportation infrastructures; as well as challenges of densification and mobile coverage in rural areas.   

In relation to major road infrastructure, the deployment of fibre is key to enhancing connectivity to vehicles. While capabilities for this deployment exist, much investment still needs to be done to cover motorways and major A roads in the UK, in order to provide the necessary high-speed connectivity as well as self-driving capabilities beyond the usual urban hotspots. A similar opportunity exists for new trackside wireless infrastructure that could offer very high capacity to rail passengers. Although dark fibre deployments do exist, access to this infrastructure by third parties is still limited. Also, the required access to power at the desired locations poses a significant challenge, while safety regulations for road/trackside installation often means that existing mobile network operator (“MNO”) installers are insufficiently qualified to undertake the necessary work.   

Despite the challenges facing roadside and trackside deployments, densification of small radio cells is essential in order to meet the performance requirements of future networks. Densification is also needed for urban areas to avoid things like not-spot situations in shopping areas, for example. However, access to street furniture, small masts, walls, etc., becomes increasingly problematic and will need changes to ducting and planning regulations. The situation in rural areas is being outlined in the study through an exemplary coverage map, showing the existing need for improvement in these areas, and to which MNOs have committed to resolving. 

Making the 5G dream a reality

While the prospect of 5G is an exciting one, promising connectivity beyond what we know today, the NIC report demonstrates that several steps must first be considered if we are to see 5G become a reality - and a successful one at that. Several considerations regarding third-party accesses, planning and site acquisition regulation as well as areas of technology development will need to be considered if 5G capabilities are to be executed and realized.   

Image Credit: Jamesteohart / Shutterstock

Dirk Trossen
Dirk Trossen is a Principal Scientist at InterDigital Europe, specializing in networking technologies and establishing InterDigital’s presence in Europe.