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British government has bought a £200m 5G 'academic wet dream'

Build it and they will come. Maybe

Football stadium photo via Shutterstock

"5G doesn't mean anything to us," says Kirill Filippov, chief executive of SPB TV, an OTT TV, IPTV and mobile TV provider touting live 360 VR in 4G at this year's Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona.

Filippov, who was hot from a handshake photo opportunity with Russian Minster of Communications and Mass Media Nikolay Nikiforov, is himself a former deputy minister of the Russian Federation for the press, TV and radio broadcasting.

Clearly ministers stick together – sort of. Nikiforov is a keen advocate of 5G. He first broached the idea of a BRICS collaboration on 5G development in 2015 and has recently set up a joint development deal with Iran. So, what does Filippov really think? Do we need 5G even if he doesn't?

"Do we need faster speeds and 5G for the future?" he counters. "Currently, the question is not whether we need 5G, but whether we have the infrastructure to utilise the full capacity of 3G and 4G networks.

"But the main point is not which standard – it is infrastructure and taking full advantage of 4G/LTE. 4G/LTE in the UK or in some Asian countries like Singapore are two different things. Load and volume capacities are a challenge for the widespread use of streaming mobile video. We need a solid infrastructure for the mobile video explosion to continue. It is especially significant for big screens, as small screens can get by with even low-speed internet connections."

Filippov would find an ally in former Mobile Data Association vice chairman and wireless expert Nick Hunn. Now a consultant and author, Hunn writes and speaks regularly on wireless technology development and sees a lot of spin in 5G. He talks of "vested interests" and "academic wet dreams" and believes that more energy and money should be spent on improving 4G/LTE.

"I really don't see the benefit [of 5G]," says Hunn. "If governments poured the same amount of money into putting more stringent coverage requirements on LTE, then I suspect we'd get a much better network, probably five years earlier. But everyone's pushing vested interests, which means there's little incentive for operators to invest in making LTE better, rather than trying to improve their margins on what they have to help pay for a future 5G."

Much of Hunn's grudge is based around bang for buck. It's difficult to see how the potentially large investments in 5G will muster significant new services that justify the expenditure.

"Of course, new applications may emerge," adds Hunn, "although it's interesting to note that broadband speeds of 100Mbps+ to the home haven't generated any new applications – they've just increased the amount of content that people stream. And for mobile connectivity, we can do that with better Wi-Fi integration, which is a lot cheaper than 5G."

Later this year the UK government is expected to auction off 5G spectrum, a move that is expected to raise considerable funds. Ofcom raised £2.34bn following its auctioning of 4G spectrum in 2013 but this time around, operator Three is less than happy, claiming it will launch a legal challenge unless Ofcom can guarantee a level playing field for smaller operators. This has been the main reason for the delay to the auction that was supposed to happen late last year.

There are immediate financial gains for governments everywhere, an understandable incentive to big-up the network but not necessarily the initial reason for the government to develop a 5G strategy document. Theresa May's government is sold on the idea that 5G is a key infrastructure technology of the future and has backed trials in places such as Bristol and Surrey University. Around £200m in public money will be ploughed into research of 5G this year, but surely a more pressing concern is coverage.

Lack of coverage

While the strategy has won some plaudits – not least from 5G critic, former Ofcom director and author of The 5G Myth William Webb – it has painted a rosy assessment of current UK coverage, quoting Ofcom figures from 2016 claiming: "4G coverage is now available to 96 per cent of UK premises and over 70 per cent of UK landmass." While that may be the case in absolute terms, no one could surely argue that those connections would be consistent and robust.

Tom Bennett, director network services at operator EE, says 5G is "an evolution, not a revolution" and should be seen in that light. 5G is "no panacea for connectivity issues," he says, but believes that it will offer low latency and spectral efficiency, boosting high-bandwidth connectivity requirements as and where it is needed, such as in areas with multiple devices demanding high bandwidth.

"I don't think we see 5G as a coverage solution," says Bennett, adding that LTE will be the workhorse for coverage with 5G "sitting on top" to cope with specific demands and services across the network. To that end, he claims EE is rolling out 4G to more than 90 per cent of the UK geography this year, with a view to reaching 95 per cent by 2020, but admits it's not being made easy by regulations on physical infrastructure, such as cell tower positions.

"The EE Code [in the recent government strategy] doesn't go far enough to empower operators, so we're lobbying hard on this," says Bennett. "In one instance in London we saw a fee of £5,000 for a small cell location and that's just not sustainable."

For Lionel Chmilewsky, CEO of Cambridge-based point to multipoint wireless business CBNL, the government's strategy is "a positive first step" in that it is encouraging interoperability through collaboration between tech companies and academia, but he adds that "opening up more spectrum and further collaboration with the private sector will be key to commercialisation."

Chmilewsky is an advocate of point-to-multipoint (PMP) technologies at 26GHz, claiming they can potentially serve multiple sites from a single multi-Gbps hub, "significantly reducing the amount of equipment and cost needed for ubiquitous high-capacity connectivity, compared to traditional point-to-point or fibre," he says. "In the US, the FCC and major carriers have identified fixed wireless in the 28GHz and adjacent bands as the initial use case for 5G."

CBNL connected more than 20,000 homes in less than 18 months in the US states of Utah and Texas recently using tech in the 28GHz and 5GHz bands, a feat that has convinced Chmilewsky that 5G has a big future in uplifting connectivity across even remote geographies. It seems almost contradictory and yet plausible.

"5G has the potential to bring genuine value to many new verticals and revolutionise the way we work and live," he says. "Whereas 3G and 4G were really based on a mobility uplift, 5G will encompass a range of new use cases, from vehicle-to-vehicle and eHealth, to faster fixed broadband and IoT."

Ah, IoT. We've seen it all before of course with 3G and 4G, but IoT throws in a new conundrum to test the mettle. All those fridges, TVs, heaters and doorbells need to connect to something. Hunn is not convinced.

"I don't see that 5G will help IoT," he says. "The NB-IoT scheme should do that, and there's some more low-power stuff due in the next few 4G releases. So, we're probably covered for IoT applications for the next decade."

No one is really listening to that argument.

The 5G bandwagon has gained a lot of momentum, at least within the confined walls of the industry, and everyone is talking IoT. Anything and everything is going to benefit from 5G, at least if the majority of Mobile World Congress exhibits are anything to go by. So what does the person on the street think?

Mention 5G in any local pub and you will get three typical answers ranging from "no idea, mate" through to "that's artificial grass, isn't it?" and of course, "can't even get 4G, so what's the point?"

This research might not be fully representative as it was, in truth, conducted in just three pubs (two in the southwest of England and one on London's Fleet Street) but the point remains: 5G is fragmented, divisive and lacking standards but – for the most part – lacks a single clear or decisive reason for being. ®

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