5G: Mother of all pipes, or actually useful?

For the first time, mobile operators not at centre of ecosystem

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The 5G standardization timeline is set, demos and proofs of concept are proliferating, and claims to 5G world firsts are on the rise. Yet, many mobile operators and vendors don’t really know what future 5G networks will be needed for beyond better mobile broadband services, and they’re calling on potential industry users for help.

A grand vision for 5G is a network of networks, so to speak, that can accommodate just about any use case for any type of customer – whether that’s a mobile broadband consumer or large enterprises like car manufacturers, energy suppliers, transportation and logistics companies, or healthcare providers – thanks to technology concepts like network slicing. 5G is as much, or even more, about connecting things as it is about connecting people.

While the early development of 5G standards and technology appears to be focused on enhancing mobile broadband, operators and vendors also want to get real on what they will need to build to meet future industrial use cases. And for that, they need a better job understanding what vertical industries really want. This was a common theme at the recent 5G World event in London. Speaking at the conference, BT Group managing director for Mobile Stephen Haines said that 5G needs to be “all things to all people” but that the most important thing right now is defining the actual use cases among vertical industries.

“We need to develop the use cases if we want to make 5G a reality,” he said. “Just faster” is important, but when it comes to specific requirements for improving quality of service, security and low latency, these really need to be user driven. He urged industry users to “talk to BT about what those compelling use cases are going to be.”

Nokia’s chief technology officer Hossein Moiin said 5G needs a different approach from earlier wireless technology development and commercialization efforts. “What applications will be the spark that starts the fire? In 4G, it was a better mobile broadband experience. In 5G, that is not clear,” he said at the event.

Moiin stressed the importance of expanding the 5G development beyond just telcos. “For the first time in many cases, the mobile operator is not at the centre of the ecosystem,” he said.

The risk for mobile operators of not addressing specific industry requirements is that users will simply develop their own private mobile networks to meet their needs.

A recent example is UK online grocery delivery firm Ocado. The company built a new grocery distribution warehouse in Andover and needed a wireless system to coordinate the thousands of robots that pick the groceries, but it couldn’t find a suitable available technology. According to David Sharp, head of the 10x Technology Team at Ocado, they couldn’t use Wi-Fi because it would create too much interference, so they developed a proprietary technology with the help of Cambridge Consultants.

Ocado’s wireless system supports 1,000 robots per base station, delivering 3Kbps to each robot with a fixed latency of 10 messages per second. The system operates in one 10MHz channel in the unlicensed 5GHz spectrum band. Now, Ocado is looking to make its technology available to online grocers in Europe and in future it could offer the platform to online retailers in other industries as well.

That’s the kind of opportunity that mobile operators and vendors hope to address with 5G.

Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown reckons the signs are promising that the mobile industry will work with others outside their immediate telco strata. “Verticals are already working with the mobile industry on things like connected car, Internet of Things, and they understand the value and why it’s in their interest to contribute and collaborate in 5G,” he said.

There are signs of collaboration at the standardization level, too. ETSI is looking to get vertical industries involved as much as possible so that standards can be specified that actually meet their needs.

Adrian Scrase, ETSI CTO, says public safety and broadcasting sectors are already fully engaged in the standardization process. The group has also had input from the rail and automotive sectors. But there are industries that have had little or no engagement with ETSI to date, such as aeronautical, healthcare, factory automation, agriculture and exploration and mining.

Wireless equipment vendors are also cosying up to industry players to develop 5G. Huawei reckons on having engaged with 10 with industry partners, such as car manufacturers, while Ericsson says it has 12 industry 5G partners.

So, with operators and their equipment suppliers both pursuing vertical industry partners in the development phase, who will ultimately provide 5G services and applications to industry users after 2020 - once the initial standards have been set?

Mobile operators are likely to be the primary channel, given that they own the spectrum and wide-area infrastructure. But to deliver the service – for example, in a network slice - they may have to work with a specialist industry integrator of some kind.

According to Brown, you’ll also likely see firms in verticals set up their own private networks.

The challenge? Something to the customer might not actually be a thing that the vendor or operator can profit through on simple pricing. A bit like Wi-Fi. ®


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