The UK has achieved a lot with its rollout of 4G connectivity over the past year, reaching more than 52 million active subscriptions and 89 per cent geographic coverage in towns and cities nationwide. However, as we move into the 5G era, demands for mobile data continue to rise rapidly and ever-quicker connectivity speeds open doors to new data-heavy applications – such as Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), high quality video (4K, 8K) and virtual reality (VR) – leaving the telecoms industry facing brand new connectivity challenges.
This mounting pressure to keep people connected – especially in densely populated cities like London, Manchester and Birmingham, where millions of consumers and businesses battle to get online using the same limited spectrum – coupled with the improvements needed in infrastructure and technology, threatens how quickly we can realise the full potential of 5G. So, what steps must the industry take in 2018 and beyond to make future rollout a success?
Smart spectrum use
The first and perhaps most obvious consideration is spectrum. Ofcom has worked with its continental counterparts to determine the three bands that they believe will be initially important to enable 5G in Europe: 700 MHz, 3.4-3.8 GHz, and 24.25-27.5 GHz.
However, spectrum is limited and therefore expensive, so the industry will also need to make better use of the spectrum that mobile network operators (MNOs) already have in order to deal with colossal demand across busy cities and suburban areas. This would mean that rather than relying only on roadside towers, the sector must look towards the installation of hundreds of thousands of street-level outdoor small cells as a solution, providing additional capacity and coverage in areas where it is needed most.
Where 2017 has seen initial small cell rollout and confirmation of the deployment and operational model, 2018 will be all about scale.
This will require greater collaboration and investment throughout the sector, involving infrastructure providers (like Arqiva), asset owners and MNOs; but is crucial if the UK is to be part of the 5G race.
Support for MIMO and dark fibre
The transition to 5G will require more than just an increase in asset numbers – the industry needs to look closely at how its infrastructure operates and how it will support the new technology (i.e. MIMO – multiple input/multiple output) in order to provide the reliable, superfast connectivity customers expect.
‘Standard MIMO’ (and its various derivatives) uses multiple antennas located at both the source and destination of a wireless signal to maximise efficiency and minimise error in the network – a system already being deployed to enhance 4G connectivity. This trend is set to accelerate as we head through the 4G evolution and into 5G, introducing ‘Massive MIMO’. As the term suggests, this is MIMO scaled up to hundreds or thousands of antennas and terminals, designed to achieve greater efficiency and throughput using the same amount of spectrum – requiring investment and upgrade of existing physical infrastructure (i.e. towers).
With Ofcom working to improve the access of Openreach’s infrastructure, the industry also needs to consider how these assets will work around dark fibre connections, which will be a vital component of 5G network deployment. Denser networks with greater coordination will be needed to support the huge growth in mobile data, increased M2M activity and ongoing launch of new services. For 5G to thrive, dark fibre will need to be available to the mobile industry from a range of players at competitive prices.
Fixed wireless access
5G will clearly bring seismic changes to the industry and providers will need to reassess how they manage, sell and deliver their services. Network slicing will provide the opportunity to offer services with very different features via a common set of infrastructure.
Take 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), for example. FWA can provide a greatly enhanced service compared to today’s fixed home broadband technologies and complement future fibre-to-premise deployments. Such a service could result in new market entrants, as well as providing an alternative approach for established players by changing the time to market for ultrafast broadband and allowing greater commercial model innovation.
Last year Arqiva conducted the first field trial of FWA technology in the UK, working with Samsung to deploy an end-to-end 5G FWA network operating in the 28GHz band – and demonstrating its enormous potential for delivering ultra-fast, high bandwidth connectivity to homes and businesses. We expect UK broadband providers to undertake similar trials and network planning in 2018 as the industry begins to seriously consider how commercial models will need to either change or evolve as a result of 5G connectivity over the next 12 months.
The road ahead
Many cite 2020 as the estimated arrival date of 5G, but regardless of exact date, the industry needs to remember that this will be the very start of the new connectivity era, rather than the pinnacle.
The technologies being trialled and implemented right now will help get things off to a flying start, however the future success of 5G will be heavily dependent on the work that is done over the coming years to prepare for and overcome the inevitable challenges of delivering superfast connectivity and high network demands.
If infrastructure providers, network operators, local authorities and the Government work in close quarters to develop the required infrastructure, the UK will be in a much better position to call itself a true leader of the 5G era.