The rush for 5G
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

ETSI CTO Adrian Scrase shares his personal views with Sam Fenwick on the push by operators to roll out 5G ahead of schedule and the technology’s implications for PMR

Adrian Scrase was first introduced to the world of international standards in the mid-1980s, while he was working for the Radio Regulatory Department of the DTI in London. “It was something I really enjoy doing, working at the leading edge of technology, trying to build consensus among different players. I’d come from a hardcore radio background, radio interference background, so for me this was quite a new piece of work, but I liked the challenge of getting people to pull together and reach consensus.”

Since then, he has risen to become CTO of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), which produces globally applicable standards for information and communications technologies (ICT). It is one of the seven organisational partners that make up 3GPP, the body responsible for the creation and maintenance of the standards that allow the cellular industry to realise economies of scale, allow handsets to roam from one network to another and bring new features to market without operators fearing vendor lock-in. With 3GPP Release 14 now frozen, much of the attention has turned to Release 15, which will provide the first wave of features branded as 5G (mainly aimed at enabling enhanced mobile broadband – eMBB), and Release 16, which will provide additional functionality to support the massive IoT and ultra-reliable use cases.

Scrase notes that the rush for 5G is recent. “If you go back two or three years, there wasn’t really [a] strong push for 5G. We were on course to have standards finished by 2020; in the Asian markets they were clearly saying that mobile broadband was their priority, in Europe people were saying ‘we have a very good mobile broadband system in LTE, so we don’t see that as our first use case, we need to look for other revenue streams’.

“Now as we get closer to the deadline, things have changed. There’s been the acceleration of the standards production because industry has said ‘we don’t want standards by the end of 2020, we need them by the end of 2017’. So we’ve had to accelerate our work so we can release something at the end of this year.”

This, Scrase says, begs the question as to why operators are so keen to deploy 5G early. “I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that; there are multiple reasons why [that’s the case] – there’s quite a lot of political pressure. Certain governments are saying they want to be first to deploy and they’ve put big money on the table.” And he highlights the UK in this regard. “Then from the top down, from the prime ministerial level down, there is an urgency to get this done because it’s for the good of the nation.”

He adds that the perception that 5G will drive increases in GDP and create jobs is also behind the fact that “many nations are ramping up to be early adopters. It is much more complicated than we have seen in the past, where it was purely market demand versus operator ability to invest.” Scrase notes Europe’s single digital economy approach, which includes a move towards automated manufacturing, “and that’s being mirrored in other regions too”.

“We’re in a much more complex situation now then we ever had [when launching] 4G. But there’s no right or wrong answer to this, it’s just a complex series of conditions that have led to operators accelerating their deployment plans.”

Scrase says that the comment he found most useful from 5G World (which was part of TechXLR8), was one from “the leading operators that [said] ‘we will not recover our investment in 5G purely with the mobile broadband use case’” – indicating that while “mobile broadband might be the priority [at first], they will [need] to move into the massive IoT and ultra-reliable communications use cases over time because that’s the only way they will fully recover their investment in 5G.

“I think what lies behind all this is that if you pursue the mobile broadband use case, you’re really trying to take more money out of the same pocket, whereas if you go for the ultra-reliable or massive IoT use cases, you’re taking money out of new pockets and I’m not sure there is scope to take more money out of the same pockets.”

He adds this is what makes the mobile broadband use case questionable in the longer term – “how much more are people prepared to pay to have higher performance?” – though he notes this varies regionally.

“In Europe most people are hoping to pay less each month rather than more. Even if you’re offered compelling service improvements, are you prepared to pay significantly more for it? Maybe in Asia that works, but from a European point of view, the trend of how much you pay per month is going down for mobile phone use.” The other strong message Scrase heard was that “because 5G and network slicing are so complex, we must head to a state where the management of that network is fully automated”.

Scrase highlights the implications for the PMR community of 5G and the mission-critical functionality being standardised in 3GPP Releases 13 through to 15.

“Once we have Mission-Critical Push-To-Talk (MCPTT), doesn’t that open up the avenue for that same functionality to be used for conventional PMR users? Why would you use PMR in the future when that functionality could be acquired from, say, a MNO? I’m looking at a scenario where a taxi company with 10 taxis can go to a Vodafone shop and order 10 hand-sets which work with group call and selective calling; all the functionality you have in PMR you could have in conventional mobile radio. You don’t need to have PMR-type coverage that is usually patchy and expensive. [Could] it be a successor to trunked radio?”

Similarly, he adds: “Once EE [has] delivered the ESN [Emergency Services Network] functionality, there’s nothing to stop it using certain parts of that functionality with other customers. You’re not going to get pre-emption and priority, but other functions of that network may be available to other users. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, I’m just saying there are a lot of opportunities that are going to be opened up that might be of interest to the Land Mobile community.”

Is it too early for people to start talking about 6G? Scrase says that while there are no discussions about this taking place within 3GPP in a formal sense, they are taking place “in the corridors and at events like 5G World”, adding that this ties into the view that what 3GPP will deliver in Releases 15 and 16 will only be the starting point for 5G.

“[They] will give you the basic functionality for the 5G use cases, but there will be considerable evolution of those for the years to come. One particular instance is the core network – we know the protocols that will be used across the core network in Releases 15 and 16 aren’t going to be fundamentally different from the ones we use today; we don’t have time to rewrite them.

“Yet if we look at ETSI NGP [Next Generation Protocols] activity, they are clearly indicating that for 5G to be fully exploited, we should revisit those core network protocols, and that’s the sort of thing that will happen in Releases 17,18 and 19.” He adds that the same happened in the case of 4G with the evolution from LTE as it was launched in 2008, to LTE-Advanced and then LTE-Advanced Pro. “This is the normal sort of technology evolution within a generation that takes up to 10 years before we say ‘let’s start another generation [of cellular technology]’.

“My best guess is that you might see something called 5.5G or [something similar] – a midpoint between the beginning of 5G and the end of 5G. As we’ve done in the past, that will be branded some way and put to market and it could offer significantly more [functionality] than [that seen] in Releases 15 and 16.

“I don’t think we will start talking about 6G for some years to come. If this generation is going to last a decade, then you would expect those discussions to start somewhere around 2024, 2025 if history repeats itself.”

It is clear from Scrase’s comments that even with 5G, we’re looking at evolution rather than revolution. That said, his point about the potential upheaval in store for the two-way radio industry suggests that this might not hold true for the sectors that could be disrupted by the cellular industry’s new features.

Scrase began his career in the traditional fixed telecommunications area within British Telecom, but in 1984 he joined the Radio Regulatory Department of the DTI where he spent many years involved in radio investigation activities. This included a substantial amount of work with mobile radio systems. Scrase began working for ETSI in 1992 when he moved from England to France.

CV – Adrian Scrase
Since joining ETSI he has worked with many different technical committees and has been secretary of the former ETSI Technical Assembly and, more recently, the ETSI board. As secretary to the board he was heavily involved in the discussions that led to the creation of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). Scrase is currently ETSI CTO, but still holds the role of head of the Mobile Competence Centre (MCC), which has the primary remit of supporting 3GPP.

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