Broadband’s rollercoaster year
Written by: Simon Creasey | Published:

Simon Creasey investigates some of the key developments that have taken place in 4G and 5G over the past 12 months, and the subsequent implications for UK business

The past year has been somewhat of a rollercoaster for 5G in the UK, with a variety of important developments taking place, often in quick succession.

For instance, in July – in response to US sanctions imposed on Chinese technology giant Huawei – the UK government announced that operators should stop procuring new equipment from the company. What’s more, all of its 5G equipment is to be removed by the end of 2027, with telecoms providers furthermore instructed to stop installing Huawei kit from the end of September this year.

As if that wasn’t dramatic enough, we also saw a period last year when multiple 5G phone masts were attacked by members of the public, and in some cases burnt to the ground. These actions were carried out by conspiracy theorists nurturing the belief that the technology is in some way responsible for the spreading of COVID-19.

Add to the mix unprecedented demand for data in response to the greatest working-from-home experiment in history, and you could say that it has been a challenging period for both the technology and the sector.

With all that in mind, it is something of a relief to read in the latest Ericsson Mobility Report that “2020 will probably be known as the year when society took a giant leap forward in [its] digitalisation journey”. 5G technology – said the document – is poised to play a big role in that, not just in terms of how individuals communicate, but also in the way organisations operate on a daily basis.

So, what exactly is the current state of play with 5G, and what trends are we likely to see emerging in the coming months? More to the point, what are the key developments and initiatives when it comes to the future of UK business communications?

Enormous strain on infrastructure

According to estimates by Ericsson, by the end of 2020, more than one billion people – the equivalent of 15 per cent of the global population – were living in 5G coverage areas. The organisation further anticipates that uptake of 5G will be significantly higher than that of 4G, and that by the end of 2026, it will account for around 40 per cent of total mobile subscriptions.

As hinted at above, this is likely to be informed by ongoing trends in home working which have accelerated throughout the course of the pandemic. These have already placed enormous strain on the existing network infrastructure, with many MNOs working at capacity to keep up with an unprecedented demand for data.

Speaking of this, chief technology officer at O2, Brendan O’Reilly, says: “At the beginning of lockdown in March, we saw an increase in voice traffic comparable to nine years of typical growth. [That occurred] as our customers used the network to keep in touch with family and friends and to run their businesses.

“We acted by doubling the capacity of our voice network to meet the demand. We sent out field engineers who worked night and day to keep local sites across the country online. We also pushed ahead with our roll-out of superfast 5G.”

It wasn’t just demand for personal and business voice calls that boomed during lockdown, however. Nathalie Vafiadis, chief technology officer at BT Consumer, says the use of video also skyrocketed, a discussion which is more relevant to 5G. She adds that the company’s roll-out of 5G continued as planned last year, with reliance on its network anticipated to continue to grow throughout 2021.

New use-cases

According to figures released by Ericsson and Qualcomm, the UK is currently on a par with the likes of Denmark and Sweden when it comes to 5G coverage, with access available to around 30 per cent of the population. However, it trails behind several other European nations, including the Netherlands, Switzerland and Finland.

To help address the coverage issue, the UK government unveiled a ‘diversification strategy’ as part of a recent spending review. This committed it to investing an initial £250m in order to “increase the quality, security and resilience of new 5G mobile networks”.

Part of the strategy includes funding for an Open RAN trial with NEC, christened the ‘NeutrORAN’ Project. Based in Wales, this will aim to deliver live
5G Open RAN within the UK across the course of this year. For those who may not know, Open RAN [open radio access networks] enables operators to deploy equipment from multiple suppliers in the same configuration.

At the same time, the government is also setting up a National Telecoms Lab. This secure research facility will apparently bring together “operators, existing/new suppliers, academia and government to create representative networks in which to research and test new ways of increasing security and interoperability”.

As vital as this work may turn out to be, it is clear that governments can’t work in isolation. Indeed, O2’s O’Reilly argues that collaboration with regulators – as well as the industry itself – is also essential, in order to “maximise the opportunities that connectivity can open up for businesses and communities”.

Discussing the role of his company in particular, he continues: “We‘re committed to our role in rebuilding Britain by maintaining a £2m-a-day investment in our 4G network, while also pushing ahead with our 5G roll-out.

“Challenges we face include the need for continuous investment in a low-margin sector, alongside greater industry consolidation. There are also logistical challenges [involved in] delivering better coverage in harder to reach areas, [particularly] when coming up against planning policies that can at times be restrictive.”

Going back to Vafiadis, she says that BT is likewise committed to continuing its roll-out of 5G, with the aforementioned appetite for video in particular expected to grow even further in 2021. She says that she expects to see some interesting new uses-cases emerging, particularly when it comes to the business and commercial sector.

“We’ve seen some exciting 5G use-cases already,” she says “such as the world’s first augmented reality gig, and remote-controlled ultrasound scans. This year will see even more 5G applications come to life for both consumers and businesses, which will in turn lead to increased uptake.”

One of the most interesting use-cases to date – and one that particularly resonates in light of the global health emergency – is the 5G ‘connected ambulance’. The recent initiative, which was a collaboration between Ericsson, University Hospital Birmingham and King’s College London, saw healthcare workers using BT’s live 5G network to carry out remote patient diagnostics. The trial included use of a high-definition camera, VR headset as well as haptic glove technology.

Going back to the subject of coverage, meanwhile, one rapidly emerging area of interest for companies is the potential to set up their own private 5G networks.

This would enable them to take advantage of not only massively increased bandwidth, low latency and so on, but also other benefits, such as the increased security that goes along with operating your own discrete network.

A variety of different global companies are starting to tap into this demand, such as the aforementioned Huawei, which has launched an enterprise edition of its 5G LampSite small cell. In the same vein, CommScope has announced new enhancements to its OneCell small-cell solution, while also teaming up with Nokia to develop an interleaved passive active antenna (IPAA) radio platform.

Going back to the topic of Open RAN, the latter company has said that it expects to see deployments gaining traction over the course of this year, something it believes will usher in more new products and use-cases.

“It should be noted,” says CommScope’s director of mobile network engineering, Colin Bryce, “that a live, Open RAN 4G site [now exists] in the UK, operated by Vodafone”.

He continues: “Vodafone has confirmed plans to start Open RAN trials in Europe and Africa, with initial [sessions] expected to focus on mobile calls and data services across 2G, 3G and 4G. Additional trials involving 5G are expected in the future.”

Bryce believes that operators will now begin to focus on “pragmatic implementations of 5G networks” in order to support new devices, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S20 and Apple’s iPhone 12. They will do this – according to him – by “assessing which deployments can benefit from active massive MIMO deployments”.

Massive MIMO – an extension of MIMO – stands for ‘multiple input/multiple output’. It is the industry term for adding a much higher number of antennas on the base station in order to increase system capacity.

The past 12 months have represented arguably the most challenging period for society since the end of the Second World War. This has likewise been reflected in the communications industry, with increased user demand requiring fundamental changes in terms of service provision. What would previously have taken months – or even years – now has to happen in a matter of weeks.

At the same time, these seismic shifts are also presenting opportunities, with many experts believing industry activity around the pandemic will actually serve to accelerate the roll-out of 5G.

This has to be good news for both businesses and consumers, hastening as it does the prospect of a truly exciting new tomorrow.

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