Musk takes first step towards SpaceX broadband vision

SpaceX has kicked off its satellite broadband mission with the launch of 60 assets, all of which are now online.

The Elon Musk business has a vision to create an alternative offering for the broadband industry, relying on a monstrous number of assets floating at an operational altitude of 550km above the earth. The ‘Starlink Network’ is only just beginning, with Musk suggesting it would take another six missions to begin offering sparse services, while mediocre connectivity will only be delivered after a further twelve launches.

Even before Musk’s internet vision can begin to become reality, SpaceX will have to launch a further 720 satellites into orbit.

One of the big questions which remains is how congested the skies will get before too long. As it currently stands, there are roughly 2,000 satellites orbiting the earth, a number which causes some unease already. Considering Musk plans to have 12,000 in operation to deliver a broadband solution to the industry, the skies are going to be getting very crowded.

Started in 2002, SpaceX now employs more than 6,000 people with three launch sites in California, Texas and Florida. The firm is now one of several which has the ambition of creating mega-constellations to deliver connectivity, Amazon is another with its Project Kuiper and British start-up OneWeb has also launched its own satellites.

The mission started at 22.30 local time at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Musk announced that approximately one hour and two minutes after lift-off, the Starlink satellites were deployed at an altitude of 440km, with on-board propulsion systems taking the assets to operational altitude of 550km.

While this does sounds like a very ambitious venture for Musk, this is only a means to an end. The proceeds from delivering broadband connectivity will be used to fuel future, grander missions, such as Musk’s desire to colonise the Moon and Mars…

UK mobile lobby group bemoans inactivity from local councils

Perhaps the preached proactivity of central government will mean little towards the UK’s connected dream if local authorities and councils are creating a mobile bottleneck.

While it is hardly a surprise to see the lobby group representing the major UKs MNOs complaining the world is not being fair to the multi-billion-pound corporations, it would hardly come as a surprise local councils are not up-to-speed. Firstly, you have to consider the age-old stereotype of slow-moving tides in the public sector, and secondly, there is also a lot on the table for these councillors to be considering.

“Mobile connectivity has transformed our daily lives, and 5G is expected to take us even further, but we must ensure that at all levels of government we are equally prepared,” said Gareth Elliot, Head of Policy and Communications for Mobile UK.

“Councils have a vital role, yet while many are working towards a connected future, our research has found that there is still a lag in fully prioritising mobile connectivity. With launch plans announced for 5G now is the time to take the opportunity to work with industry to break down barriers and champion mobile connectivity, to ensure the next generation of mobile infrastructure can be deployed quickly and effectively.”

According to the telco’s lobbyist in its Councils and Connectivity report, a very minor percentage of local authorities are doing all they can to secure the foundations for the £164 billion opportunity presented to the UK economy through 5G by 2030. Again, you have to take the following numbers with a pinch of salt considering where they are coming from.

Mobile UK suggests only 28% of the plans set forward by the local authorities refer to mobile connectivity, though the majority do see the importance of fixed broadband. Only 13% of the councils have audited their assets for the suitability to host digital infrastructure, though we are not too sure the civil servants should shoulder all the blame here. The telcos have a responsibility to identify and secure assets for their own infrastructure, hence changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to grant more powers.

Perhaps the more damning statistics are 74% of councils have yet to apply for funding to improve digital connectivity, while only 44% have a have a cabinet member with

specific responsibility for digital issues. In terms of the funding, it is there and available from central government, while DCMS has also supported calls from Mobile UK for local authorities to delegate digital responsibilities to a single committee or digital champion. These are necessarily and clear steps forward, and a lack of progress is either stubborn, negligible or ignorant; none of which are favourable adjectives.

From Mobile UKs perspective, the answer is relatively simple; having a pro-active conversation with the telcos and identifying the barriers to entry. Some of these might be opening up more authority owned assets to mobile infrastructure or aiding the installation of fibre ducting for backhaul from street furniture. For those less-progressive councils, simply identifying mobile and writing specific objectives in plans is a step in the right direction. The Greater Lincolnshire Local Enterprise Partnership might not be the most advanced, but Mobile UK points out that in the latest Strategic Economic Plan there is plenty of attention given to both mobile and fixed connectivity.

Although Mobile UK will be attempting to make a mountain out of a molehill, it is its job to make life easier, quicker and cheaper for the telcos after all, we strongly suspect there is more than an element of truth to this report. And in the instance of this truth, there will be negative outcomes.

For all the work which the telcos and central government is doing to facilitate improvements in 4G connectivity and the deployment of a 5G network, it means very little if there are bottlenecks in the process. There will of course be proactive councils and local authorities, who should be applauded, though the staggering nature of others will only direct the rewards of the 5G economy elsewhere, potentially creating a digital divide.

While report should almost certainly be read in context, as there will be a risk of exaggeration, inactivity from the local authorities will almost certainly present consequences. Much of the attention from a legislation and policy perspective has been directed towards DCMS and other government departments in recent years, though the ability for local authorities to action these initiatives is just as critical a factor to success.

Inmarsat once again in the acquisition crosshairs

Acquisition rumours are once again swirling around British satellite company Inmarsat, this time to take the company back to private equity control for £3.3 billion.

The consortium, featuring Apax, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan Board and Warburg Pincu, comes at a time where the firm has been facing investor pressures. Over the last six months, poor performance from Inmarsat share price decline by 26%, while acquisition rumours have caused this trend to reverse recently. Share price is still down, but there does seem to be appetite in the market for an acquisition.

On January 31, Inmarsat received a non-binding proposal from the consortium offering $7.21 per share for the entire issued, and to be issued, share capital of the firm. The offer values the business at $3.3 billion, roughly £2.5 billion. This is not a concrete offer, but it is seemingly enough to get the market excited.

Although Inmarsat has reported flat sales growth in its core business units, maritime and government connectivity contracts, there has been increased demand in the aerospace industry, as more airlines demands connectivity, while 5G is on the horizon. The failure to deliver material progress on the promises does seem to be frustrating investors, but there is potential.

While satellite connectivity has been snubbed in recent years, usecases which demand ubiquitous connectivity in the future imply satellite has a broader role to play outside of the developing nations. Due to the civil engineering difficulties, and sometimes commercial constraints of connectivity, satellite is increasingly becoming a critical component of the connectivity mesh.

Interestingly enough, Apax might be a familiar sounding name to Inmarsat lifers. Apax was part of a consortium which bought the satellite firm in 2003, before taking it public two years later.

For some, this might be good news, but what is worth noting is this deal will be placed under scrutiny from the UK Government, which will view Inmarsat as a national strategic asset, and other attempts have failed. EchoStar attempted to acquire the business last year, investors rejected an offer worth £3.2 billion, while Eutelsat was also rumoured to be considering a bid.

BT shared rural network snub is not as it seems

Everyone agrees that there needs to be some sort of collaboration to meet the extra-ordinarily difficult coverage objectives of the Government, but BT is snubbing rivals’ latest plans?

According to The Times, O2, Vodafone and Three have tabled a plan which would see all four of the UK MNOs pool resources to tackle the digital divide. Shared infrastructure would reduce the financial burden of investing in geographical regions which offer little potential for ROI, due to the sparse or non-existent population.

At a breakfast briefing in London, Vodafone UK CTO Scott Petty laid out the concerns in a relatively simple fashion; sheep don’t pay phone bills. This is the challenge the telcos are currently facing; the vast majority of the UK’s population have coverage, but geographical demands of the government are a different kettle of fish (or herd of sheep). When no-one lives somewhere, what is the incentive to invest in infrastructure to provide coverage?

While this might seem like a reasonable approach, BT is reportedly taking issue with the plan, at least according to The Times.

“BT has already invested heavily to create the widest 4G coverage in the UK, and we are keen to collaborate with Government and industry to extend rural coverage into areas where there is none today,” BT said in a statement. “To this end, we have recently proposed a new model for consideration over the coming weeks.”

It has been widely reported BT is snapping the olive branch put on the table from rivals, but BT suggests this is just PR spin.

Reading into this statement, BT is not objecting to the idea of collaboration, the spin which has seemingly been played over the last few days, but suggesting a different approach. And from our perspective, it is a completely reasonable objection to make.

When you look at different coverage surveys and 4G connectivity analysis reports, EE is regularly crowned the best performer overall, and takes top-spot for most of the regional measurements as well. There is a simple reason for this; EE has spent more money improving its geographical coverage than its competitors.

While this is an achievement which should be applauded, the idea of rural roaming and generic shared infrastructure would erode this competitive advantage which it has been building towards. Don’t forget, EE has not been building out this 4G network because it is run by people who are just nice guys and want to help everyone in the UK. This investment has been made to give the team something to shout about and create an advantage when attempting to secure more customers.

EE wants to be able to go to potential customers and tell them they won’t only have better signal in all the normal places, but everywhere they could possible think of going. It’s a long-term strategic decision to put it in a stronger position than its rivals. Should there be any surprise EE does not want its rivals to benefit from the hard work, foresight and investments it has been making for its 4G networks?

Reading between the lines, this is what the objection is based around. BT is prepared to have discussions on collaboration to provide coverage in areas where there is none but allowing competitors to piggy back on its investments is a commercially idiotic idea. Why would it give away such a competitive edge in an industry where profits are so difficult to come by? It has made investments in commercially unattractive areas, so its rivals should have to as well.

From BT’s perspective, this is simply an attempt for rivals to increase connectivity coverage, but not having to pay for the achievement. Collaboration should be focused on areas where everyone is facing complications, not those where everyone aside from BT has an issue.

Another point to consider is whether a shared network would actually work from a differentiation perspective? The telcos are fighting for subscriptions, but if they are all using the same network in the rural markets, it becomes nothing more than a race to the bottom, eating away precious profits and marching towards utilitisation.

Finally, does such a broad-brush approach to geographical coverage actually work? Does the discussion about generic rural network sharing detract from the critical point, which should be focus on areas which have zero coverage, instead of those which have partial coverage? This is a six of one, half a dozen of the other argument, as while it sounds reasonable to concentrate on the areas which are complete data black spots, try telling that to Joe Bloggs who is potentially being screwed by only having a single provider to choose from.

This is an incredibly complicated argument, most of which has not been considered by the initial blame game which has been building over the last few days. When you take the nuances into consideration, there is no right answer, and neither are any of the suggestions wrong. In truth, something has to be prioritised, and not everyone is going to be happy with the final decision.

It might be easy to hurl blame towards BT/EE for its objection to a collaboration plan, but to do so without considering the commercial realities of the telco industry is incredibly lazy. BT/EE is objecting to this proposal, not to the idea of collaboration, but so would any other business which had built this position.

OneWeb bags another $1.25 billion for global satellite mission

London-based satellite company OneWeb has announced it has secured an additional $1.25 billion in new capital, taking the total funds raised to $3.4 billion.

Having launched it first assets into the skies on February 27, the funds will be greatly welcomed considering the scale of ambitions here. In its mission to deliver high speed, low latency, seamless broadband access everywhere on Earth, from Q4 the team will begin monthly launches of 30 satellites to create an initial constellation of 650 satellites. OneWeb certainly has big ambitions.

“This latest funding round, our largest to date, makes OneWeb’s service inevitable and is a vote of confidence from our core investor base in our business model and the OneWeb value proposition,” said Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb.

“With the recent successful launch of our first six satellites, near-completion of our innovative satellite manufacturing facility with our partner Airbus, progress towards fully securing our ITU priority spectrum position, and the signing of our first customer contracts, OneWeb is moving from the planning and development stage to deployment of our full constellation.”

While the images and PR story on the company’s website would leave some to believe this is a philanthropic mission to connect the unconnected, such good will would not attract weighty investments from the likes of Softbank, Grupo Salinas and Qualcomm. The addressable niches are quite broadly spread and certainly profitable.

“OneWeb has extended its first-mover advantage and is on track to become the world’s largest and first truly global communications network,” said Marcelo Claure, CEO of Softbank International.

“At SoftBank, our aim is to invest in transformative companies at the leading edge of technology disruption. OneWeb’s potential is undeniable as the growth in data from 5G, IoT, autonomous driving and other new technologies drives demand for capacity above and beyond the limits of the existing infrastructure.”

OneWeb has stated it will begin to offer commercial services from 2020, providing a neutral Internet access service, allowing any MNO or ISP to extend their services over OneWeb IP connectivity. The team is also pitching the constellation as a ‘5G Ready Network’.

OneWeb’s priority rights to a large block of globally harmonized spectrum and its Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation design will aim to create what it describes as a ‘truly global service’, addressing the connectivity needs of the autonomous vehicles, maritime logistics, offshore oil rigs and drill-ships, as well mobile backhaul in some of the more challenging geographical environments.

Although the concept of satellite connectivity has become relatively unfashionable in recent years, the demands of ubiquitous connectivity are creating a resurgence of interest. The perception of satellite might not be the most attractive, but it is quickly becoming a critical component of the connectivity mesh.

Infrastructure commission warns UK government over lacklustre ambition

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has issued a warning to the UK Government over its infrastructure ambitions, seemingly worried that Minister’s think the job is done.

“There is a real and exciting chance available to ensure the UK benefits from world-class infrastructure, particularly through the forthcoming National Infrastructure Strategy – a first for this country,” said Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission Sir John Armitt.

“We cannot afford for Ministers to take their eye off the ball. With this issue at the heart of the Industrial Strategy, I would urge the Government to adopt the recommendations from our National Infrastructure Assessment, and use this to offer industry the long-term, fully-costed infrastructure plan they need.”

While various committees and departments have been readying the red-tape with reviews, assessments and consultations, Armitt fears the job is only part finished. The National Infrastructure Commission recommends infrastructure plans for the next three decades should be in place to ensure the UK is future-proofed for the digital economy, a much longer-term ambition than has been set forward by the government currently.

With the National Infrastructure Strategy set to be published over the next couple of months, we’ll get a clearer picture of the ambitions of the Government. This document has been pitched as a playbook to guarantee the economic prosperity of the UK, though it seems the NIC is worried momentum might be lost should the plans be limited to a shorter period of time.

Fibre connectivity is one area which has been mentioned by the NIC, as while there are targets from the government and Ofcom for the mid-2020s and 2033, these are relatively broad. The next stage of the plan, once 15 million homes have been ‘fibred up’, should be to extend the infrastructure into the rural communities. Unless the Government formalises this progression to the next stage, there is of course a risk of telcos going ‘off-piste’ and serving their own interests.

This scenario is perfectly understandable and perhaps the very reason the Government has to cast an eye onto the far-distant horizon. Telcos are commercial organizations after all, favouring upgrades in areas where there is a more immediate ROI. This is what created the digital divide in the first place, and without regulation to hold the telcos accountable, they will naturally favour investments in the more densely urbanised areas.

What is worth noting is that Armitt’s comments are not supposed to be a damning indictment of the progress made thus far. Steps forward to ensure UK infrastructure is in an appropriate position have been made, though the question is whether the momentum will be continued to ensure the continued success of the UK in the global economy beyond the documented stages.

To counter Armitt’s point, formulating plans for such long periods of time can create a rigid regime which does allow for reactionary measures. Who knows what the world will look like in a couple of years’ time; any plans will have to flexible enough to allow adaptability. It is a tricky equation to balance.

For anyone in the telecommunications and telco world, this is a bit of a recurring theme. Digital communications is a hot topic right now, such is the enthusiasm created by 5G, though the political interest peaks and troughs. The same political hype ramped up ahead of 3G and 4G before dying off. Soon enough another cause to champion will emerge, though should the NIC’s recommendations be taken on board, you would hope the regulatory framework has been put in place to ensure structured progression.

Vodafone turns to wifi innovation to bolster broadband business

Vodafone has announced the launch of a new smart home network which it hopes will address a frustration of many consumers around the world; suspect wifi.

The new routers will not only allow for extenders to be placed around the house, potentially eliminating not-spots hidden in various rooms, but cloud-based algorithms will allow for more dynamic and intelligent allocation of connectivity resources.

“We know that the vast majority of people’s broadband issues are actually down to poor Wi-Fi signals in their homes – around a quarter of calls into customer care are about Wi-Fi issues,” said Ahmed Essam, Vodafone Group’s Chief Commercial and Strategy Officer. “Super WiFi is a simple way to address these problems and give our customers the best possible connection in every room of their house, every day of the week.”

As it stands, most broadband routers are pretty dumb devices. Bandwidth is split evenly to the devices which are connected to the router, irrelevant as to what the devices are doing. In this ‘dumb’ world, your TV which might be streaming a HD movie, will be allocated the same amount of bandwidth as a laptop which is only checking emails. Its not a very efficient way to do connectivity.

Cloud-based self-learning algorithms mean the network is constantly improving over time, adjusting automatically to deliver the best possible connection to each type of device, whether it is a mobile, laptop or connected TV. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the difference in checking WhatsApp and watching Stranger Things, while the equation might become a little bit more complicated with the connected revolution gathering momentum.

The introduction of smart speakers and energy meters might just be the beginning. While the idea of a connected fridge has been around for years, with a supporting ecosystem quickly emerging behind the products, there might be a bigger appetite for such futuristic living. With more devices fighting for connectivity attention from the router, this might be a solution. The ‘dumb’ status quo, putting the TV and the fridge on par, is clearly not a good option.

This is certainly a good move forward for Vodafone, and we look forward to the routers coming to the UK in the next couple of months, with the Spaniards getting the attention first and foremost.

Government to give Ofcom new stick swinging targets

The UK Government has unveiled a new consultation which will explore how it can encourage Ofcom to snap the whip, making sure telcos get their gears churning to meet connectivity targets.

Over the next decade, if the government manages to create a suitable amount of urgency across the telco industry, there will certainly be some progress made. The objectives currently set out are nationwide full fibre broadband coverage by 2033, while also increasing geographic mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by 2022.

Although this sounds very official, this consultation is more of a temperature check from the government. It’s asking the industry to give it feedback on its Statement of Strategic Priorities to reinforce its position and create a framework for Ofcom to work towards, ensuring the aims and objectives of the government and the regulator are on the same page.

In this consultation, the government is presenting its Statement of Strategic Priorities for a legally required 40-day consultation, which will validate and justify the aims, therefore providing a more stable foundation to bring Ofcom’s work in-line with government ambitions. This is a process which is required in other utility verticals and brings the telco industry more in-line with the stricter regulatory scrutiny which is placed on segments such as water and energy.

Aside from meeting the connectivity and coverage ambitions, the consultation will also look at how ‘loyalty penalties’, the price-creep which is placed on contract renewals, can be tackled. The telco industry is one which is geared towards customer acquisition, though many would like to see loyalty rewarded, instead of picking up the slack created by offers to lure customers away from competitors.

“As the UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom has a critical role in realising our shared connectivity aspirations for the UK,” said Secretary of State, Jeremy Wright. “As well as ensuring the necessary improvements to broadband and mobile services, consumers must also be protected. I urge Ofcom to tackle harmful business practices and remove barriers to switching.”

The ‘loyalty penalty’ is a highly emotive mission from bureaucrats and consumer champions to stop an age-old practise of the telcos, which is perhaps underhanded. It is effectively taking advantage of those who are not savvy-enough to search for a new deal, or those who might innocently and naively presume loyalty would be rewarded. Unfortunately, this is not the case in the telco space, an industry which has a woeful track record and outlook on customer experience and services.

In terms of improving mobile coverage, the up-coming Ofcom 700 MHz auction has caught the attention of the government. The auction will aim to sell off 80 MHz in the 700 MHz band, spectrum which is well suited for providing mobile coverage over wide areas and indoors. Ofcom is currently clearing this band of transmissions for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) and by wireless microphones used in the entertainment industry, though the plans are to have the spectrum free for mobile use by summer 2020.

Elsewhere in the consultation, rural roaming will be covered. Again, this ties back to empowering the consumer with greater connectivity and coverage, tackling the not-spots across the UK. Despite each of the telcos claiming progress in improving coverage, there are still plenty of not-spots across the UK where consumers only have the choice of one operator. Future proposals would aim to improve roaming agreements, to offer greater choice of providers to the consumer.

Finally, the consultation will ask for opinions on the current regulatory landscape. Central to this aspect of the investigation will be the suitability of rules and regulations to ensure the UK attracts investment.

While this might seem like bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, it is a democratic nation ensuring all the boxes are ticked. The government has ambitions and objectives, though it is seeking validation from the community, before presenting a mandate to Ofcom to ensure it is regulating the industry in the way the government feels is most beneficial for society on the whole.

Are you ready to look at 6G?

We can hear the groans already, but we’re going to do it anyway. Let’s have a look at what 6G could possibly contribute to the connected economy.

Such is our desire for progress, we haven’t even launched 5G but the best and brightest around are already considering what 6G will bring to the world. It does kind of make sense though, to avoid the dreaded staggering of download speeds and the horrific appearance of buffering symbols, the industry has to look far beyond the horizon.

If you consider the uphill struggle it has been to get 5G to this point, and we haven’t even launched glorious ‘G’ properly, how long will it take before we get to 6G? Or perhaps a better question is how long before we actually need it?

“5G will not be able to handle the number of ‘things’ which are connected to the network in a couple of years’ time,” said Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK. “We need to start thinking about 6G now and we have people who are participating in the standards groups already.”

This is perhaps the issue which we are facing in the future; the sheer volume of ‘things’ which will be connected to the internet. As Petty points out, 5G is about being bigger, badder and leaner. Download speeds will be faster, reliability will be better, and latency will be almost none existent, but the weight of ‘things’ will almost certainly have an impact. Today’s networks haven’t been built with this in mind.

Trying to find consensus on the growth of IOT is somewhat of a difficult task, such is the variety of predictions. Everyone predicts the same thing, the number of devices will grow in an extra-ordinary fashion, but the figures vary by billions.

Using Ericsson’s latest mobility report, the team is estimating cellular IoT connections will reach 4.1 billion in 2024, of which 2.7 billion will be in North East Asia. This is a huge number and growth will only accelerate year-on-year. But here is thing, we’re basing these judgments on what we know today; the number of IOT devices will be more dependent on new products, services and business models which will appear when the right people have the 5G tools to play around with. Who knows what the growth could actually be?

IOT Growth

Another aspect to consider is the emergence of new devices. As it stands, current IOT devices deliver such a minor slice of the total cellular traffic around the world its not much of a consideration, however with new usecases and products for areas such as traffic safety, automated vehicles, drones and industrial automation, the status quo will change. As IOT becomes more commonplace and complicated, data demands might well increase, adding to network strain.

Petty suggests this will be the massive gamechanger for the communications industry over the next few years and will define the case for 6G. But, who knows what the killer usecase will be for 5G, or what needs will actually push the case for the next evolution of networks. That said, more efficient use of the spectrum is almost certainly going to be one of the parameters. According to Petty, this will help with the tsunami of things but there is a lot of new science which will have to be considered.

Then again, 6G might not be measured under the same requirements as today…

Sooner or later the industry will have to stop selling itself under the ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra, as speeds will become irrelevant. If you have a strong and stable 4G connection today, there isn’t much you can’t do. Few applications or videos that are available to the consumer require 5G to function properly, something which telco marketers will have to adapt to in the coming years as they try to convince customers to upgrade to 5G contracts.

4G and arguably todays vision of 5G has always been about making the pipe bigger and faster, because those were the demands of the telcos trying to meet the demands of the consumer. 6G might be measured under different KPIs, for example, energy efficiency.

According to Alan Carlton, Managing Director of InterDigital’s European business, the drive towards more speed and more data is mainly self-imposed. The next ‘G’ can be defined as what the industry wants it to be. The telcos would have to think of other ways to sell connectivity services to the consumer, but they will have to do that sooner or later.

The great thing about 5G is that we are barely scratching the surface of what is capable. “We’re not even at 5.0G yet,” said Carlton. “And this is part of the confusion.”

What 5G is nowadays is essentially LTE-A Pro. We’re talking about 256-QAM and Massive MIMO but that is not really a different conversation. With Release 16 on the horizon and future standards groups working on topics such virtualisation, MMwave and total cost of ownership, future phases of 5G will promise so much more.

The next step for Carlton is not necessarily making everything faster, or more reliable or lower latency, but the next ‘G’ could be all about ditching the wires. Fibre is an inflexible commodity, and while it might be fantastic, why do we need it? Why shouldn’t the next vision of connectivity be one where we don’t have any wires at all?

Carlton’s approach to the future of connectivity is somewhat different to the norm. This is an industry which is fascinated by the pipes themselves and delivering services faster, but these working groups and standards bodies are driving change for the benefit of the industry. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about making something faster, so you can charge more, just a change to the status quo which benefits the industry.

Coming back to the energy efficiency idea, this is certainly something which has been suggested elsewhere. IEEE has been running a series of conferences in California addressing this very issue, as delivering 1000X more data is naturally going to consume more energy to start with. It probably won’t be 1000X more expensive, but it is incredibly difficult to predict what future energy consumption needs will be. Small cells do not consume as much energy as traditional sites, but there will need to be a lot more of them to meet demand. There are a lot of different elements to consider here (for example environment or spectrum frequency), but again, this is a bit of an unknown.

Perhaps this is an area where governments will start to wade in? Especially in the European and North American markets which are more sensitive to environmental impacts (excluding the seemingly blind Trump).

Echoing Petty’s point from earlier, we don’t necessarily know the specifics of how the telco industry is going to be stressed and strained in six- or seven-years’ time. These changes will form the catalyst for change, evolving from 5G to 6G, and it might well be a desire for more energy efficient solutions or it might well be a world free of wires.

Moving across the North Sea, 6G has already captured the attention of those in the Nordics.

Back in April 2018, the Academy of Finland announced the launch of ‘6Genesis’, an eight-year research programme to drive the industry towards 6G. Here, the study groups will start to explore technologies and services which are impossible to deliver in today’s world, and much of this will revolve around artificial intelligence.

Just across the border in Sweden, these new technologies are capturing the attention of Ericsson. According to Magnus Frodigh, Head of Ericsson Research, areas like Quantum computing, artificial intelligence and edge computing are all making huge leaps forward, something which will only be increased with improved connectivity. These are the areas which will define the next generation, and what can be achieved in the long-run.

“One of the new things to think about is the combination of unlimited connectivity as a resource, combined with low latency, more powerful computing,” said Frodigh. “No-one really knows how this is going to play out, but this might help define the next generation of mobile.”

Of course, predicting 6G might be pretty simple. In a couple of years’ time, perhaps we will all be walking around with augmented reality glasses on while holographic pods replace our TVs. If such usecases exist, perhaps the old ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra of the telco industry will be called upon once again. One group which is counting on this is EU-funded Terranova, which is currently working on solutions to allow network connection in the terahertz range, providing speeds of up to 400 Gbps.

Another area to consider is the idea of edge computing and the pervasiveness of artificial intelligence. According to Carlton (InterDigital), AI will be every in the future with intelligence embedded in almost every device. This is the vision of the intelligent economy, but for AI to work as promised, latency will have to be so much lower than we can even consider delivering today. This is another demand of future connectivity, but without it the intelligent economy will be nothing more than a shade of what has been promised.

And of course, the more intelligence you put on or in devices, the greater the strain on the components. Eventually more processing power will be moved off the devices and into the cloud, building the case for distributed computing and self-learning algorithms hosted on the edge. It is another aspect which will have to be considered, and arguably 5G could satisfy some of these demands, but who knows how quickly and broadly this field will accelerate.

Artificial intelligence and the intelligent economy have the potential to become a catalyst for change, forcing us to completely rethink how networks are designed, built and upgraded. We don’t know for sure yet, but most would assume the AI demands of the next couple of years will strain the network in the same way video has stressed 4G.

Who knows what 6G has in store for us, but here’s to hoping 5G isn’t an over-hyped dud.

Openreach creates 1.6k new roles to fuel fibre rollout

A sparkling new training centre in Peterborough and 3,000 fresh-faced trainee engineers, 1,600 of which are newly created roles, gives weight to the long-overdue fibre rollout ambitions of Openreach.

Peterborough is the second of twelve new or upgraded training centres across the UK as Openreach continues to scale with plans to hire an 6,500 engineers across the next twelve months. The full-fibre plans are starting to meet acceptable expectations, and it’s about time. Currently, Openreach employs 24,282 field engineers and last year hired 3,500 new engineers.

“Openreach’s publication of clear plans for where, when and how they will be investing in new fibre networks is an important step,” said UK Minister for Digital Margot James. “Long term commitments from the industry like this are very important for local communities who need this kind of guarantee on when they will be able to take advantage of the benefits that fibre can bring.”

“In the last year, we’ve learnt to build at high quality, and at a competitive cost,” said Openreach CEO Clive Selley. “This year, we’ll prove that we can build the network on a vast scale and connect customers seamlessly.”

For the digital economy to run at full pace, fibre connectivity is a must. Openreach are clearly reacting to this idea, though this is hardly novel. Selley and his slumbering cronies should have been aware of this years ago, unless the Spanish, French, Portuguese and Norwegians had access to a secret stash of research it wasn’t sharing with Openreach.

As it currently stands, only 6% of homes and business across the UK have access to full-fibre connectivity. However, this number has more than doubled between 2017 and 2018, according to Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2018 report. This might be progress though the UK should not consider calling itself a leader in the connected economy.

Looking at the full-fibre assault, Openreach is now (or will be in the near future) building in 25 towns, cities and boroughs across the UK as it drives towards its ambition of fibering-up three million homes and businesses by 2020. The team also plan to release figures every three months to increase transparency through the full-fibre rollout.

As part of the government’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review, the industry has been set a target to connect 15 million premises to full fibre broadband by 2025 and provide full fibre broadband coverage across all of the UK by 2033. Alongside the increased need to satisfy the connectivity appetite of the ever-demanding consumer, fibre infrastructure will be key to realising the 5G dream.

“Access to fibre broadband is particularly key for UK businesses in the run up-to Brexit, as companies come under even more under pressure to deliver on a global scale,” said Phil Sorsky, VP International Sales at CommScope. “With that in mind, it is critical that everyone across the country has the same access to the opportunities enabled by connectivity.”

Progress is being made, albeit at a slow pace, but at least the UK is staggering towards the finish line.