The Next Stop on the Metro Network? 5G Mobile
The future looks more than exciting for service providers looking to offer 5G services, as long as they evolve their metro networks in good time.
Google ‘5G’ and you’ll find plenty of scholarly articles about the era of the fifth generation mobile network. It’s the same story in many ways as before, with each mobile generation seriously increasing data transfer rates from its predecessor. But 5G is different – because of its promise to make all those previous leaps look like baby steps. In doing so, it will enable a whole new host of technologies and services that, until now, have been confined to small-scale or lab-based demos by boffins in white coats.
New services = new revenue streams
Let’s not beat about the bush. 5G technology really will herald the arrival of a range of truly exciting and revolutionary new services – for consumers, for businesses, for industry and for public services. And with these new services come major opportunities for service providers keen to diversify their service portfolios and create new ways to generate revenue. In fact, Ericsson and Arthur D Little (2017) estimate the 5G-enabled industry digitalization revenues for ICT players will be US$1.3 trillion by 2026. With new services and business opportunities being created in the automotive sectors, critical industries, utilities, government and strategic industries as they look to 5G to underpin their modernization.
So service providers who manage to cut themselves even a sliver of the 5G pie can expect a generous helping of revenue. But as with any great technological leap (and let me say again, it will undoubtedly be a great leap), 5G will come with its own unique set of challenges. Challenges that will play out on the metro network and force service providers to rethink how they gear up to provide these new services.
But before we focus on the how, let’s remind ourselves of some of the cool new services and verticals that 5G is set to revolutionise.
- Media and entertainment
Download speeds will be at the very least 10 times faster than 4G – and are likely to be up to 100 times faster. So downloading an HD movie will take seconds. There are already plans to provide fans attending events with live on-demand replays to their mobile devices. Imagine, 80,000 people asking for the same 4K replay at the same time. And we’re already seeing augmented reality (AR) and user-generated content (UGC) on the 4G network. 5G’s high-bandwidth, low-latency capabilities will take this to another level, with immersive AR supporting services like virtual reality (VR) multi-player mobile gaming. We’ll also be able to take our media with us, switching devices as we go.
- Education and training
Connected classrooms and training centres offer exciting opportunities. From smart campuses and classrooms, to lessons using VR and AR, to personalised learning plans, to remote classrooms and better services for students with special needs, 5G will help open up access to high-quality education for all.
- Self-driving vehicles
With 5G, autonomous vehicles can now become a ‘this is really happening’ technology. We already se the start of this with trails for trials for 5G enabled autonomous trains. And we’d all welcome cars that could talk to each other to avoid collisions, or vehicles that provide relevant, up-to-date travel information to roadside displays and directly to our cars, based on real-time data, traffic management systems, roadside sensors, weather reports and other sources. None of this will happen until 5G networks are ubiquitous. And once they are you can be sure that not long after, self-driving vehicles will become a regular sight on our roads.
5G’s ability to support the Internet of Things (IoT) will provide a step change in how we generate and consume energy. For example, intelligent energy management systems –the bedrock of the smart grid – will use 5G and IoT to gather information from sensors to allow them to manage and control distributed and renewable energy sources on the network. Plus, the next generation of smart meters will collect information on how buildings are consuming energy, and analyse and optimise energy use to make our homes and offices ‘smart’.
A world where we each have a personal health monitoring device is no longer beyond the realms of science-fiction. A device that tells us when we’re ill, dispenses medication and even calls first responders in medical emergencies. Many of us already have heart-rate monitors in our watches, collecting data on our activity. 5G will broaden the possibilities as never before. Thanks to its ultra-low latency capabilities, 5G will make remote diagnosis, remote surgery and anaesthetic control even more prevalent, including allow more complex procedures.
- Industry 4.0
While Industry 4.0 is isn’t yet there, 5G will be a key enabler in data collection and transfer, and continuous monitoring and control in the factories of the future of IoT, robotics, analytics and machine intelligence. Of course, 5G won’t revolutionise manufacturing on its own, but it should provide the unified comms platform needed to disrupt existing business models and overcome the limitations of current comms technologies.
- Smart cities
It’s in our cities where 5G will have the biggest impact. Imagine hyper-connected urban areas where everything’s interconnected – traffic management systems, transport services, driverless cars, utilities, homes, healthcare and municipal services. And all them working together to help reduce costs and consumption, improve public services and wellbeing, and create a better quality of life for citizens.
A metro fit for 5G mobile
As you’d expect, all the 5G services and verticals outlined above will massively increase the data load (mainly fuelled by mobile web and video) running on the metro network. But it will also require a highly dynamic approach and major flexibility to connect and cater for this vast new array of services. Services that by their very nature will demand increased compute power able to move around the network.
With 5G, you have a huge variety of services all requiring different levels of capacity, latency and flexibility. For example, video streaming in HD and 4K need huge amounts of capacity. Remote surgery and self-driving cars need ultra-low latency connectivity. Mission critical utilities need hardly any bandwidth, but unbelievably high reliability. What’s more, many of these services will need to be brought up or down in real-time, so the amount of traffic you need to backhaul on the metro will constantly change.
Flexibility, latency and capacity – the dynamic trio
The result of all this is that to achieve many of these capabilities you’ve got to move some of your compute power as close to source as you can. For example, in the case of self-driving cars, you need your compute power right at the edge of the network (in the car, even). So backhauling the traffic from the radio access network (RAN) to the core for processing simply won’t give you the ultra-low latency you’d need for self-driving cars.
So, on top of supporting the increased capacity from the IoT and tens of millions of new mobile devices, the metro network has to be able to be extremely dynamic to allow compute power to be put where it’s needed – and turned up or down as required.
5G has been one of the drivers for rolling out software-defined networks (SDN) on a large scale. SDN will allow you to define the capacity, connectivity and processing power and, thanks to virtualization, you can put those virtual compute resources where you need them. Virtualization that, in turn, allows you to introduce the mobile access edge computing (MEC) required to hit the latency requirements for certain services and split the control and user plane processing. I’ve written about MEC considerations for metro networks here.
Grasp the nettle or get stung by evolution
As I’ve already mentioned, 5G is a great financial opportunity and will offer serious service differentiator for switched-on service providers ready to make the most of it. My colleague, Jimmy Mizrahi, in his article ‘Why waiting for 5G is the wrong metro network strategy’, recommends you start adding value to your current service offerings. That way you can use the metro evolution to diversify portfolios, create new revenue streams, and compete on more than just price. He also suggests having a clear path to SDN functionality.
Ultimately, service providers can truly succeed if they evolve their metro networks to meet the obstacles and opportunities that 5G will bring. Those who rest on their laurels, will be quickly left behind and find catching up will be nigh on impossible. I know which group I’d rather be in.