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The 5G opportunity: driving digital transformation

telecomworld 2017 Daily Highlights 2

Discussing 5G as the driving force of the digital ecosystem worldwide with representatives of all key stakeholders raised a number of fascinating issues as hard to pin down as 5G itself.

Sébastien Soriano, BEREC Chair and President, ARCEP, France, shared a uniquely European perspective as the chair of the body of regulators charged by the EU institution with harmonizing regulation across the continent – and repositioning Europe as a global leader in innovative technology. “5g is not just another technology: together with the IoT and AI, it is the innovation wave that Europe wants to surf to be in the tech scene,” he said.

This ultimately political mission is based on exploiting the continent’s innate diversity, enabling it to experiment with a variety of solutions in differing contexts. No one size fits all, as the familiar mantra of technology roll-out goes; but the ambitious aim of early network introduction in 2018 and the first large scale commercial deployment in 2020 calls for a common approach to spectrum, to finding smart solutions across a range of verticals beyond simply telecoms, and to creating a new legal framework for long-term investment. Competition, after all, should inspire investment rather than limiting it, as “we are not a low-cost continent, but one that invests, especially in 5G.”

Seeking to move away from the concept of 5G as simply the next technological step-change, Inmarsat’s Donna Bethea Murphy reminded the panel that we are on the edge of a revolution, rather than an evolution – and one with unpredictable results. There is no specific network business model or frequency band, rather a collaboration of multiple technologies, verticals, and bands, providing highly reliable, ubiquitous, high capacity for a multitude of use cases – but offering the end user a seamless experience, wherever they are.

Seamless connectivity means the user will be largely unaware of it as “all technologies, fixed, wireless, wifi, will work together, with satellite playing a key role in the 5G revolution to make sure the urban versus rural divide doesn’t get bigger” and that we end up with a smart society, not a collection of smart cities.

“Mobile is at the heart of the current transformation and at the heart of the future age of automation,” according to Andy Hudson, Head of Technology Policy, GSMA.  Connecting the 52% of the world’s population that is not yet online must be the first priority, through a mix of fast reliable network coverage, ensuring affordability, and developing both local content and digital literacy.  Digital lives are not, however, founded on technology alone. We need privacy, security and standards in the current 4G age, let alone as we move towards 5G and a world of immersive communication, VR, augmented reality and increasingly blurred line between the physical and the digital worlds.

Standards for 5G are important to ensure connectivity remains fluid and flexible in the new era of 5G networks, adapting to different applications and performances.  Ensuring international alignment on standards will involve governments and regulators working in close collaboration – and accelerating 5G will also mean agreeing on spectrum, creating a supportive investment environment and encouraging government to lead by example through digital services.

Broadly in agreement on the need for global 5G standards to support growth, Jan Färih, Vice President and Head of Standardization and Industry, Telefon AB – LM Ericsson, pointed out the need for systems and networks that perform well and meet the expectations of end users – as well as affordable, attractive devices, and compelling services and apps.

But the real technological challenge of 5G is second-guessing the future and building networks that can cope with a huge range of use cases, many of which are as yet unknown, ranging from massive sensor deployment to robotic steering and ultra-reliable communications. “We had to define a network that was flexible as we don’t really know which use cases will come up in the next ten years… it is key to take care of flexibility, in parallel to standards,” he said, emphasizing the extent to which 5G success will depend on flexible, multi-functional, systems and services offering high performance and adaptability to new industries and their requirements.

Infrastructure sharing improves the efficiency and effectiveness of mobile networks – and significantly reduces the cost of deployment, explained Wu Ma, General Manager, Operation and Development Department, China Tower Corporation. Improving reach and network coverage will be increasingly important as operators move from 4G to 5G, taking with them user expectations of speed, data volume, quality of service and mobility.

By sharing an infrastructure platform, the three leading Chinese mobile operators behind China Tower have freed up resources and operating costs to focus instead on handsets, services and markets. This approach works very well in the current 4G era, but will need to be extended to meet the needs of 5G: “We will try to look at other opportunities to reduce cost, such as street lamp posts across cities and small towers in urban areas to increase efficiency”, he explained, repeating the need to meet subscriber expectations in terms of experience and performance.

Soriano shared his understanding of 5G as “a protea form technology that can deliver a different class of services for different use cases and business cases”

Questions on investment and regulation were raised by the audience: where should the funding for the massive amounts of investment in next-generation networks come from, in an era of historically low ARPU?

For Andy Hudson, 5G is no different from any other infrastructure, in that investment will come as ever from mobile operators and government in one form or another, ideally within the framework of a supportive policy and regulatory environment. Wa pointed out the difficult balancing act telcos face between investing in the near future of 4G infrastructure and services whilst also planning for longer-term, cost-intensive 5G networks. Given the need for greater coverage and reduced distance between cells, much greater volumes of investment will be needed. New business models offering a great ROI should be explored, perhaps alongside innovations in subscriber management and applications billing. “The infrastructure needs to be ready for the business model, but we also need time and opportunity to explore 5G and look elsewhere in the world,” he said.

Soriano saw the need to be open to innovative ways of thinking on infrastructure, such as holders operating 5G services themselves. Telco investors have long had a very specific investment cycle to enable operators to keep growing, and with each technology advancement, revenue has decreased. It is ultimately down to the telcos to work out how to make money from 5G, rather than an issue for public bodies.

The regulatory challenges posed by 5G are as complex and unpredictable as the network itself. The beauty of 5G, its ability to slice the network and discriminate traffic, means different service providers can offer services tailored to specific customer use cases.  Soriano was clear that the end user must be free to choose the best services and applications – meaning the delicate question of net neutrality will be back on the table, with regulators adopting a case-by-case approach. Issues of transparency, quality of service, spectrum licensing and data protection will also fall to the regulator as 5G develops, as well as “rewarding innovation so that companies will take the initiative to build about infrastructure”, said Donna Murphy.

The complexity of regulating something as complex as 5G will make for a fascinating challenge, the panel agreed – and as for who should actually be responsible, well, that’s a topic for next time!