5G has the potential to change the way we live our lives in the future by improving connectivity across the UK and importantly in rural locations. That said; there is still work to be done before the UK can fully reap the benefits of this nascent technology. ‘Killer-apps’ must be identified to justify investments and encourage large scale commercial deployment. The UK Government’s Digital Strategy is helping to pave the way for the future roll out of 5G with initial investment of £25 million, and up to £200 million more expected to support UK-wide test beds to spearhead efforts to make the UK a world leader in 5G.
To help meet this vision, public and private sector cooperation is needed to explore the benefits that 5G could bring for both urban and rural communities and for a variety of sectors including tourism and healthcare. There are companies up and down the country that are at the forefront of experimenting with and testing this connectivity by accelerating the development of next generation digital infrastructure and driving forward new 5G business opportunities. In addition to Telcos and their Vendors, small to medium sized enterprises, universities and local authorities have already begun to test 5G across a range of applications. Some current examples include smart farming with drones, using the internet of things (IoT) to improve healthcare in the home, increasing manufacturing productivity and maximizing the benefits of self driving cars.
5G isn’t just about providing higher speed better quality connections, in more locations, it is hoped it might go some way to addressing the problems of connectivity in rural environments with trials taking place in the Orkney Islands and rural Somerset; its roll out could have benefits for all walks of life and in all environments. There are several government sponsored projects that are currently taking place in urban communities to test out how 5G infrastructure could best be introduced. For example, urban connected communities projects will enable public and private sector consortia to propose wireless infrastructure in major cities that deliver high quality connectivity, while enabling applications on 5G to be trialed. Aberdeen, Glasgow, Bristol and Manchester are thought to be in the running to become the UK’s first 5G city.
How does the Internet of Things fit in with all this? 5G could become the backbone of the IoT, linking fixed and mobile devices. Take the popular example of a smart city, it is a place where all the devices are connected, speaking to each other and sharing data and allowing informed decisions to be made. It is anticipated that 5G will provide a platform of interoperable connectivity giving these devices a fast and reliable means of communicating; this is a key factor in the success of such ventures.
There have been real life case studies on smart cities, which are helping us learn from the experience of others. ‘5G Barcelona’ is a good example to refer to when looking to implement urban 5G networks and the benefits it can bring to the community and for the economy. In this case, it helped support IoT solutions such as connected transport, waste and energy management application on a city wide scale.
A connected community software platform will support developers in trialing new 5G applications and services. Real-time information about essential public services in an area including bus, tram and train actual arrival times, parking availability and pre-booking could be made available to mobile and online applications. It could support virtual and augmented reality integrated into local tourist attractions, real-time video medical consultations and remote treatment offered by medical professionals. It will also allow industry to test different deployment models for 5G infrastructure and trials more generally help inform the development of policy and regulation to support 5G roll out. The power of 5G and the ability to deliver internet speeds of over a gigabit per second over the air should not be underestimated.
The technology is not just an improvement on 4G, it’s not just the next step up like 4G was to 3G. It will bring significant change because of the higher spectral efficiency and low latency that will allow much larger data volumes and potentially higher quality connections. 5G offers the potential of large numbers of devices and people connecting at once without a loss in connection quality.
Of course, we are not the only ones experimenting with 5G. Projects in Japan, United States and Germany are helping to shape how the technology can be implemented. NTT DoCoMo in Japan has conducted trials with Samsung using 28GHz band that resulted in speeds of 2.5Gb/s in a vehicle travelling at 150km/h. Sprint in the US has demonstrated 4K video streaming of football matches over 5G. Deutsche Telekom has conducted trials with autonomous network slicing to demonstrate that networks can have the intrinsic intelligence to portion slices of the network for specific traffic segments. All this experimentation with 5G will help define how we improve existing applications by using 5G enabled solutions such as smart metering, smart grids, smart cities, wearables and mHealth, tracking, connected homes, and vehicle telematics.
Telemedicine or technology enabled healthcare is an area where 5G could make a massive difference. Thanks to its low latency and reliability, remote diagnosis over video link and the ability to carry out surgical procedures across a 5G network using robotic instruments could become more of a reality. Wearable sensors for patient monitoring that can integrate with IoT capability within 5G could change how patients receive care and the data generated could better inform healthcare practitioners.
The improved level of connectivity that comes with 5G could make driverless cars more of an every day reality than at present. The technology exists in terms of the vehicles and the software but reliable and fast connectivity is essential before we will begin to see these cars and lorries on our roads. You can imagine the impact that a sudden loss of signal could have on the operation of one of these vehicles. Likewise, the transmission of information from the car to the roadside is equally important. Current connectivity, even in the smartest of cities, is just not up to the job.
So when could we be seeing 5G in the UK? Standards could be in place later this year, with some vendors claiming equipment availability shortly thereafter. Realistically, it seems unlikely consumer devices will be available before 2020. Updating current infrastructure is necessary for the implementation of 5G. Due to the step-change in spectrum use, data throughput and volume, 5G radio sites will be smaller, more densely spaced and need fibre backhaul connectivity. Many current mobile sites are connected via microwave radio, whilst data speeds via microwave have improved immensely over the last decade, the potential data throughput required by 5G will push beyond that boundary. This is particularly important in rural areas where fibre and indeed access to basic internet services remains a huge issue.
5G is only one part of the UK’s broader vision of world-class connectivity and it will provide a backbone of possibilities, helping to make smart cities, towns and villages a reality. 5G represents a fundamental transformation of the role that mobile technology will play in our society, delivering rich new services in sectors such as finance, transport, retail and health. Early deployments must deliver successful at-scale sector specific solutions that demonstrate commercial viability, through a sustainable business case to justify future investment. This will result in more widespread rollout delivering the wider benefits the technology can bring. If this can be achieved, the UK will be well placed to take advantage of this step forward and to become a world leader in this field.
Adam Nickerson, Principal Consultant at FarrPoint
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