With commercial 5G launches just starting in Europe, this London event provided good focus on the industry state of play. High level speakers from US and Asia helped set the context, supplemented by well known industry analysts. This wasn’t purely about 5G basestation equipment, with exhibitors offering a wide range of services from planning to testing to applications. A celebration of what 5G technology can achieve for sure, highlighting the need for more small cells if true saturated coverage is to be achieved yet still lacking in credible 5G business cases.
A more focussed event
5G World delivers a European focus on the next generation. Running for many years the event was formerly known as LTE World, and 3GSM before that. It’s now integrated as a component of the wider TechXLR8 conference series held simultaneously by Knect365, last year mixed in with other topics but this year given a more independent format. The exhibition hall was more clearly demarcated, presentation halls were better signposted. While there were a couple of logistic hiccups with the audio system (a special dispensation from Ofcom added new frequencies at short notice to fix that) and there were long lunch queues, the overall operation was calm and well ordered as we know to expect from Informa.
With 14 parallel presentation streams, I can only give a brief snapshot of what I saw and will have omitted or missed many other useful aspects. Hopefully, I’ve captured the essence of what was definitely a worthwhile event in a fairly succinct but independent way.
Setting the scene
Analyst Dario Talmesio outlined the state of 5G today, praising South Korea as frontrunner for 5G commercial service. All three operators there launched with a total of over 80,000 base stations. Other regions following closely behind are the US, Japan, China, Europe, Australia and some in the Middle East. 5G spectrum licences will be awarded in 40-50 markets over the next 12 months.
He felt the pace of adoption was faster than for previous generations, and that although there aren’t many 5G smartphones on sale today (for example in the UK and SKT Korea there is a choice of just two handsets), there has been a lot of activity to develop fixed wireless CPE. Ovum predict over 1 billion 5G subscriptions by 2023 vs perhaps 10 million FWA worldwide.
Overall the size of market for 5G fixed wireless access is tiny compared to that for eMBB (Mobile Broadband).
Live networks today are based on the “pre-standard” 5G, which Ronan Dunne of Verizon said was very close (95%) to the recently published standard. Most are using mid-band spectrum around 3GHz, with only Japan and the Verizon in the US having deployed millimetre Wave to date. All are using the NSA (non standalone architecture), ie bolting the 5G radio onto existing 4G core networks, but Vodafone Spain will launch with full 5G standalone (ie 5G core) shortly.
The primary differentiators for 5G are high speed/capacity (measured in Gigabits per second) and low latency (down to a few milliseconds). Operators such as SK Telecom, are exploring a variety of new business models and services such as Virtual Reality and Ultra-High Definitiion video streaming.
SK Telecom seek new revenue streams
There’s no doubt that SK Telecom is well ahead of the pack, with deployments across all the major cities. They’ve invested heavily in exploring new business models, services that could lead to new income streams. They focus on
- Smart Factory
- Autonomous Driving
- Immersive Media
- Realistic Gaming
You have to question how much of these would lead to significant extra revenue for operators. Several operators commented that they will achieve this through partnerships, for example by getting a contribution from a pop concert or sports event ticket for enabling the immersive media experiences. It’s hard to see that being a significant percentage of operators’ revenues. And where delivered indoors or on private areas, why shouldn’t private systems be deployed to deliver these services? The main factor preventing that today is the regulatory/government reticence to provide spectrum other than through the operators.
Low latency is marketed as one of the key differentiators of 5G. However, it’s typically not much better than 4G unless the applications are delivered close to the basestation using Edge Computing. SKT have achieved 3ms when served by edge compute, 10ms with “near edge” at a core switching centre, and 20ms when using the public cloud. That’s borne out by real-world tests of video bloggers in the US and for public internet use doesn't differ very much from 4G.
Super high speeds are only available when in range of 5G basestations and at this stage they are very under utilised – speeds will inevitably slow once more heavily loaded.
Verizon see quick win from extra capacity alone
Ronan Dunne, Verizon EVP and President of Verizon Wireless, explained his immediate needs. The US market offers unlimited data packages with average consumption of 40GBytes per month – much higher than many other countries. With annual data growth rates are 35% to 40% his immediate use case is for extra capacity. All US operators need to build out more capacity as quickly as they can, and the potential to deliver up to 10 Terrabits per second of data with 10ms latency per square kilometre would massively improve capacity, QoS and reduce delay. (This peak capacity would need mmWave not just the midband cellular spectrum).
Verizon was very upbeat about the capabilities of miilimeter wave, having proved in trials that it works even in rain, snow and foliage. They benefitted from using a single supplier (Samsung) for their end-to-end fixed wireless equipment (CPE, basestations, smartphones). This allows them to address other parts of the US where they don’t have fixed landline/wireline and they have found much higher levels of churn onto their fixed wireless service where made available.
Ronan believes that sharing the same mmWave infrastructure for both fixed wireless and mobile services should be cost effective. Longer term, 5G standards have been designed to allow operation in every bit of cellular spectrum in use today and he believed that would be the natural evolution, with smartphones evolving to support that.
Telefonica O2 favour sharing
Brendan O’Reilly, CTO of Telefonica O2, reminded us that the UK is well advanced in the business model of equipment and site sharing. There are two hosting companies, MBNL and Cornerstone, each jointly owned by two networks. He clearly encourages further equipment sharing, and when I asked him, did not rule out including Edge Computing resources. One of his key messages was to focus on the end service being delivered, not the technology used to do so.
Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone partnering for Edge Platform and services
Emphasising the benefits of 5G low latency need edge computing, DT listed six different applications (mainly around VR and AR) for which both will be required. They have been working closely with MobileEdgeX to develop and trial such services, again looking at revenues that come from event pricing, gaming subscriptions and collaboration rather than simply part of the standard telco price plan.
Perhaps by contrast, Vodafone will shortly launch 5G in four countries (UK, Spain, Germany, Italy) involving an exclusive deal with Hatch Cloud Gaming, which streams games live to devices rather than running Apps locally. This will be offered free with their premium plans.
Andrea Dona of Vodafone UK outlined an approach to streamlined operations and management of networks which, while laudible and sensible, didn't seem to me to be particularly specific to 5G. Nothing wrong in that, operators have tried to streamline their operations for decades while at the same time continuously introducing new features and technologies. There was some talk on the panel about which bits of networks could be turned off, with VEON (formerly Vimpelcom) pointing out that they offer nationwide 2G service used by just 2% of their customer base.
John Baker of Mavenir was perhaps arguing for the ultimate sharing solution - OpenRAN. Mavenir offer to system integrate all the required components for a commercial 5G network, using general hardware platforms. I understood that means it isn't quite as energy efficient, feature rich, robust or debugged as from one of the major RAN suppliers yet, but there is clearly interest from some quarters in this approach.
UK Government not yet decided about Huawei
Jeremy Wright MP, Secretary of State for DCMS, spoke about the significant improvement in geographic coverage achieved in recent years, now up from 80 to 90% of UK territory is served with 4G by at least one operator. The government goal is 95% and they will look again at alternatives if the existing operators don’t deliver.
The UK government is considering spectrum sharing for 5G using new business models. He also highlighted the need for significant investment in telecom security to protect the country. There is no decision at this stage on whether any specific vendors will be blocked from providing equipment for UK 5G networks – clearly a difficult political issue at the moment.
I did not see Huawei present at the event, although ZTE and other Chinese companies (eg Comba) were exhibiting.
Informa acquires (bits of) IHS Market
Informa is a large international conference, analyst and industry media company, hosting this event through its KNect365 subsidiary. It also has its own analyst divisions, Ovum and Heavy Reading, and last month acquired the telecoms arm of IHS Markit in a swap arrangement. Informa will pay $30 million but IHS Market will retain RootMetrics, the benchmarking business. Analysts such as Stefan Teral, who chaired one of the conference sessions, will now find himself working alongside Gabriel Brown and Ray Le Maistre in the future. I’d also expect this to feed into the conference agendas in the future.
Stefan Teral, introducing the afternoon session, noted that
- 700 network operators worldwide offer LTE today
- 200 of those offer LTE Advanced, delivering higher speeds
- 100 of those offer LTE Gigabit, using 4x4 MIMO, 256QAM, Carrier Aggregation
Bottom line is that there is a huge amount of mileage left in 4G, and there will continue to be huge amount of investment in it.
He also reminded us that Qualcomm remain leaders in device chipsets, with Intel apparently unable to meet with Apple’s requirements and now exited the 5g smartphone modem business. This is partly why we saw Apple and Qualcomm come to a $4.5 billion settlement over IPR recently.
Expect to see a lot of hype around 5G over the coming year, with commercial launches announced around the world. This moves from the pre-standard 5G into the first standard release and will mostly be higher speed 5G new radio bolted on to existing 4G networks, mainly in high traffic areas of the main cities.
The primary benefits of higher speeds will be most noticeable for those streaming high definition video, but this will only be when within 5G coverage and using a 5G handset. Low latency will be most noticeable when combined with Edge Computing, such as for video gaming, augmented reality and similar applications. Higher speeds and capacity come primarily from the extra spectrum allocated - 5G isn't inherently much more spectrally efficient than 4G - and that higher frequency spectrum (especially mmWave) doesn't travel so far or penetrate inbuilding.
The more rounded and complete version of the 5G standard will be published in March 2020 and will take time to finalise development and deploy. I’d expect Apple iPhones to include support 5G from 2H 2020. Many other models will come on to the market in the next 12 months. I suspect battery life may be an issue when using these higher performance video services.
Meanwhile, LTE will continue to attract considerable investment and can deliver good service for all but the highest video streaming services.
Small cells were barely mentioned during the sessions I attended. Similar issues remain for both 4G and 5G, but to gain the full benefits of 5G then many more will be required. Outdoor urban small cells are seen as costly to deploy. Inbuilding small cells can be very cost effective, especially when cost shared with building owners. Both will require a much more positive approach to sharing, delegation and streamlined processes than we have seen to date.