MWC: The race to 5G
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

5G was a major topic at this year’s Mobile World Congress. While many hope to cash in by being first to market, we’re still a way away from widespread adoption. Sam Fenwick reports

5G and IoT were both major topics of discussion at this year’s Mobile World Congress. Both have the potential to be hugely profitable

While 5G was on everybody’s lips at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona there are still several more MWCs before the next generation of cellular devices and autonomous vehicles are at our fingertips. According to Adrian Scrase, ETSI’s CTO, 5G is “an opportunity to rethink some of the fundamentals that we’ve been taking for granted for many years”, such as “the way IP traffic is administered in an internet-like environment”. He adds that ETSI has recently created its Next Generation Protocols to challenge the status quo – “just because its worked this way for 20 years doesn’t mean to say there isn’t a better way to do it”.

At MWC, ZTE and its partner China Mobile demonstrated a radio prototype that operates on a 15 GHz carrier with a bandwidth of 500 MB, which provides a multi-user multiple input multiple output (MU-MIMO) peak bitrate as high as 10 Gbps. It also uses beamforming technology so terminals can be rapidly tracked by multiple beams.

Nokia demonstrated pre-standard ‘5G’ radio with its AirScale Base Station and AirScale Cloud Base Station Server running on its AirFrame IT hardware. The system uses 8x8 MIMO and boasts less than one millisecond latency thanks to an “optimised frame structure”. Hossein Moiin, EVP and CTO of Nokia Networks, claims it is “the industry’s first demonstration of how 5G will work in practice, going beyond previous experimental systems. We are showing 5G live – it’s a major advance because it means that 5G is no longer a distant vision.”

Another 5G world-first was claimed by Samsung Electronics and Deutsche Telekom, with an end-to-end 5G demonstration in which Samsung introduced its 60 GHz millimetre wave technology. The demonstration used two Samsung smartphones, each of which contained 16 antenna elements that support beam-forming, to track a robot arm using 4K UHD video transmitted over the air by Ultra High Mobile Broadband (U-MBB) at 60 GHz, which achieved throughput of more than 1.5 gigabytes per second on each smartphone. Only a U-MBB network slice provided a low enough latency to allow the robot arm to catch a falling ball (the robot failed to catch it when the tracking data was relayed over a LTE network slice).

In addition, Ericsson demonstrated 25 Gbps downlink speed in the 15 GHz band using spacial separation between beams and beam steering from multi-user MIMO.

While demonstrations like this may seem almost frivolous, colossal profits are at stake. Getting ahead of the competition and being the first to market with 5G could be worth billions. At the same time, the sheer complexity of today’s technology means that 5G development is very much a collaborative effort. Ericsson and Qualcomm announced a new partnership aimed at performing early trials and 5G technology verification to support the technical need for 3GPP standardisation in Release 15. Ericsson also revealed that it has joined China Mobile’s 5G Joint Innovation Center.

Günther Oettinger, a commissioner for digital economy and society at the European Commission, announced at MWC that the European Commission will work with industry to produce a 5G Action Plan for Europe, which “should be adopted by the end of this year”. Oettinger expects that it will include a calendar for commercial deployment, a strategy to involve vertical industries, incentives “to bring investment in fibre infrastructure to the next level, since there will be no 5G without ubiquitous fibre access”, “proposals to adapt spectrum management to fit 21st century needs” and “measures to ensure that the next EU telecom framework will be fit for 5G”. Oettinger also signed an agreement on behalf of the EU with Brazil to develop 5G.

Gavin Patterson, BT Group’s CEO, expects 5G services to come to the UK around 2020, while Hans Vestberg, Ericsson’s CEO, believes the 5G standard won’t be set until 2020 and estimates that there will be 150 million 5G subscribers in 2020-2021, “with some pre-standard commercial networks arriving beforehand”. Ralph de la Vega, vice chairman of AT&T, anticipates that 5G will start to be deployed as early as 2018.

“There is no clear definition of 5G... but from the ETSI and 3GPP point of view we see the tipping point at ITU 2020 level, because there at least we have a clear definition of targets that we have to achieve,” says ETSI’s Scrase.

What will 5G be used for? Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, thinks “a few years from now the vast majority of the content that people consume online is going to be video”. Should this coincide with greater adoption of ultra-high definition video, today’s cellular networks just won’t cut it. However, it is hard to reconcile a video-first world with the time-poor lifestyles of many of today’s consumers. Then again, perhaps our poor work/life balance may be just a passing phase.

Developing 5G technology and having the business case and finance needed to roll it out across a network are two very different things, particularly at a time when over-the-top (OTT) services such as Whatsapp are cutting into MNOs’ traditional revenue streams. As Scrase points out, 5G is looking to serve three main types of use cases: an enhanced mobile broadband experience, providing connectivity for the Internet of Things and, last but not least, enabling resilient critical communications. These use cases and the business cases for them will be debated at ETSI’s 5G summit on 21 April.

“We had the public safety community come to us and say ‘we want to use LTE and it must perform this way for us to use it’. That was not in the design criteria for LTE so it’s a good lesson. As we design a fifth generation network we should make no assumptions about who will be using it because we don’t know – we can guess but there’s a good chance we’ll be wrong,” Scrase says.

“It’s still being questioned in the minds of the thought leaders. Yes we can deliver compelling new services, but are we sure there are people that will buy them?” he concludes.

Ulf Ewaldsson, senior vice president, group CTO and head of group function technology at Ericsson, says that his company is seeing a wider range of strategies among its customers that ever before and sees the role of MNOs becoming more differentiated. He also notes that 5G will allow operators to incrementally upgrade their networks from 4G, which eliminates the need for “a completely new business case for a new network”.

“I think this is the biggest opportunity the telecom industry has ever had”, he adds. “This is a way in which networks can be more relevant than they have ever been... It’s always hard to make business cases on very big opportunities because they become impossible to calculate, it’s like asking what is the business case on the iPhone.”

“5G cannot be a service-aware bitpipe where OTT services take the revenue. There has to be some ‘through the middle’ partnership, paying real money for a virtual slice [of a network],” says Paul Rhodes, head of strategy at Evolved Network Solutions.

Ewaldsson was asked for his thoughts on the risks associated with 5G. “It’s the first time we’re doing a lot of commercial launches before the standard is even set. That has never happened in the industry before. Can we handle that? Hopefully. If something branches out... it will not survive as a global standard going forward. The more branching, the more R&D [is needed] [and] the less scale. It will just slow down the scale a little bit if it branches.”

Turning to IoT, which is expected to be an important use-case for 5G technology, Bengt Nordström, CEO of mobile technology advisory Northstream, says that it “will be an important revenue stream, but it doesn’t look to be that big. When we look at various research it makes sense to estimate one to three per cent of an operator’s revenue can come from IoT connectivity.”

However, Rami Avidan, MD, IoT at mobile network operator Tele2 responded by saying “I’d put another zero at least to that”.

“We’re a mobile operator in IoT and we provide connectivity solutions – 80 per cent of my revenue comes from connectivity today. In 2018 50 per cent of my revenues and probably 75 per cent of my margin will come from IoT services [and] solutions... everything from analytics to smart billing solutions,” Avidan adds.

Given that the IoT market is expected to be big business it follows that cyber security considerations will become important. It was made very clear at MWC that this aspect has been neglected for some time.

James Lyne, global head of security research at IT security company Sophos and his team recently bought about £5,000-worth of IoT devices and “spent a lot of time ripping them apart, looking at the firmware and how they communicate, trying to understand what [they] do.”

“The majority of these devices were terrible – some of them used plain text usernames and passwords. I could pull my home Wi- Fi network password out of an alarming number,” he explains. “In many cases we found flaws that show a fundamental lack of consideration for security, a fundamental lack of effort to do things right. There’s a huge opportunity to improve the Internet of Things... just by ensuring that as part of development and quality assurance we ask the security question.”

Lyne also says it can be difficult to separate mobile and IoT devices, as in many cases the latter connect to apps on mobiles. Sophos took the top 1,002 apps and looked for basic security considerations, such as the ability to make secure connections. One of the apps they studied sends out its company’s Twitter API secret key to all of its users several times a day. He adds that “we see lots of use of clear user names and passwords, outdated hashing mechanisms, you name it.

“Many of the IoT devices we’re talking about today fall into the category of nice toy rather than truly life-altering device – there are some of those out there but there’s more on the toy side. We must learn to get these security practices right before these devices end up in every aspect of our lives... where there’s a true impact to life and limb.”

I hope that this has given you a feel for two of the major themes explored at Mobile World Congress. It will be interesting to see what next year’s show will bring, especially if a major incident brings IoT cyber security into focus or if one of the many companies developing 5G gains a considerable lead over its rivals in the race to be first to market.

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