The year 2020 may seem like a long way off, but interest in the development of faster and more robust 5G wireless networks is gathering. While visions of a ‘digital society’ downloading films in less than five seconds and enjoying a revolution in virtual reality grab the headlines, discussion within the industry is centred on what the future holds for the next generation of the mobile network. Yet with the patchy coverage of 4G, mobile consumers in the UK are still spending nearly half their time connected to 3G networks. So how will operators deliver the all-important infrastructure to support 5G and what sort of practical considerations and preparations need to be made?
The European Commission has said that now is the time to kick-start 5G developments and plan future investment. Meanwhile, some of the world’s largest telecoms companies have recently signed a 5G manifesto, aimed at driving forward the deployment of next-generation mobile networks. The signatories include BT, Nokia, Orange, Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom. The manifesto pledges to launch fast 5G mobile networks in every country within the European Union by 2020. The measure of success will be levels of network up-time and the level of performance experienced by consumers when 5G arrives.
The challenge ahead is evidenced by research showing that the UK’s 4G coverage is lagging behind other countries in Europe, where other countries have been able to reach 70 percent and higher coverage. Indeed, while regulators and operators are already looking ahead to the 5G data networks of the future, just achieving better 3G and 4G coverage remains a priority. Therefore, planning and testing the infrastructure and equipment in the UK that will make the 5G dream a reality is a critical, if possibly overlooked, building block of the preparations.
A significant amount of money has been poured into developing and verifying Massive MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output), a multiple antenna technology that dramatically increases base station capacity for both transmission and reception of data. Verizon, Nokia, Samsung and Qualcomm are also collectively working on driving the ecosystem towards commercialisation of 5G and have carried out a series of field tests. Network giant Cisco has collaborated with Ericsson and Intel to develop and trial what is expected to be the industry’s first 5G router.
A primary obstacle for network providers is cumbersome upgrade cycles on legacy networks, which currently fall in the region of 6-8 weeks. This is a crucial part of planning the network infrastructure in order to ensure that not only the existing infrastructure can cope with increasing demand for reliability and coverage, but that the networks are able to build for the future. It is not only necessary to support the traffic volume expected by 2020 but also to boost networks and Internet architectures in emerging areas such as machine-to-machine communication (M2M) and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Clearly a reduction in testing times, for example, will form a critical success factor in the roll-out of this network. There are new automated testing solutions coming to market now for 2G and 3G coverage that test various elements of radio base station technologies (RBS) in around 30 minutes, which is a significant time saving on the six hour norm. The automated test solution we have developed is benefitting one of the world’s leading mobile infrastructure companies with a solution in Indonesia. The solution means that for the first time, the company is able to keep the units in Indonesia and service the various elements in the RBS nodes much faster, saving up to several weeks in the testing process. Furthermore, disruptions to the in-country network infrastructure are further mitigated. Similar innovations in test solutions for 5G are crucial to giving operators the confidence that their hardware investments today will meet future demands.
Similarly, an age of the ‘always on’ consumer who feels anxious when they are without their favourite device for even a short period of time, will only be heightened by 5G. The increased service levels being offered by Mobile Operators will demand a higher quality of service from its infrastructure suppliers in both hardware supply but also software support. A tidal wave of new technology, from smartphones, routers, wearable tech and virtual reality innovations need to be go through an objective testing process to assess the condition and functionality of products, which will ultimately benefit OEMs, operators, retailers, distributers, insurers and consumers when 5G arrives.
Without reliable test equipment and measurement tools, failed new products from the field may pass bench tests and form part of the 5G story from the outset. Indeed, the evolution of testing products must occur concurrently as new innovative technologies are introduced to devices. And with 15% of consumer electronics failing in the first three to four years of ownership, it’s imperative that manufacturers, retailers and insurers are working with excellent after sales services partners for testing, repairing and returning products.
While the promise of 5G is huge, whether 5G dream arrives with a bang or a botch-up depends on the extent that operators plan meticulously, invest in their networks and bring testing and preparation to the fore now.