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The UK 5G launch season is in full swing, but it is a pale shadow of what we need – 4G still reigns supreme

5G has arrived – or has it? At the time of writing, EE, Vodafone and
Three have announced the availability of the UK’s first 5G networks, and O2 has
announced launch plans. The new services are surprisingly limited in geographic
coverage, performance and features, focussing on broadband only applications.
The massive IoT connectivity application of the services has been delayed to
2023. The current incarnation in all carriers except Three UK does not offer
the promised alternative to replace leased lines (‘millimeter wave’). Even the
much hyped mobile broadband speeds have been downgraded from Gigabits to burst
rates in the hundreds of Mbps at best. Add in the lack of reliability, spotty
coverage and inconsistency in commercial approach, and 5G is no more than a work
in progress.

With a significant number of infrastructural and operational challenges
to be overcome before 5G can become a business reality for UK companies, Nick
Sacke, Head of Products and IoT,
Comms365 explains it is time to set the ‘glass half
empty’ promises of 5G to one side and leverage the proven quality, consistency
and reliability of existing wireless networks, especially 4G, to support
business communications infrastructure and growth.

Land Grab

The promise of 5G has been
compelling for many reasons. From businesses looking to achieve widespread IoT
deployments, to those seeking a viable broadband and leased line replacement
alternative or companies struggling in areas of rural connectivity deprivation,
on paper 5G appears to have all the answers. The recent 5G roll out
announcements, however, have been something of a disappointment for all.
Limited to just six cities initially (EE) – and with variable accessibility
even within these areas – the 5G rollout is a promise rather than a reality. It
will take several years before 5G offers ubiquitous accessibility – and there
are no firm plans to support rural areas and manufacturing – rather, a set of
innovation challenges that are funding Consortia projects to look at innovation
to address the problem. Even then, a number of key features of the service are
still to be clarified.

The reality today is that 5G –
where it is available – is providing enhanced mobile broadband and no more. For
those with compatible devices – an issue in itself given the lack of available
devices and the Huawei situation – 5G will enable voice calls and broadband
internet access. Even then, the promised speeds are not being delivered –
customers can expect 150-200Mbps at best, and on the Vodafone commercial plans
we see ‘guarantees’ of 2Mbps, 10Mbps or ’the fastest available’ – this falls
short of the Gigabit speeds promised. Furthermore, consistency is a very
concerning issue, with both speed and coverage variable within the launch city
locations. On the plus side, Vodafone has offered an ‘Unlimited’ data plan that
will begin to chip away at one of the big pillars of operator revenues, i.e.
the mobile data costs.

So why have EE, Vodafone and
Three rushed to announce 5G networks that are still more of a half-promise than
a reality? The answer is a land grab, to try and get to market first with
something, rather than nothing. The impact for businesses that want to make
investments in high speed wireless technology, leveraging the value of
repeatable, consistent, widespread and easy to use services, is that 5G is
already a significant disappointment. Carriers will need to raise their game
significantly if they want businesses to invest their communications budgets in
the new technology.

5G Dissected

While the Tier 1 network
providers are promising to rapidly expand the 5G network range – with EE
planning to upgrade more than 100 sites to 5G every month – this is very much a
work in progress. On the plus side, the 5G network will address the capacity
issues facing overloaded 4G networks, enabling millions of additional
connections on existing spectrum.

But what about the other key
aspects of the 5G network offering? 5G has been touted as a viable alternative
to leased lines and a chance for companies to avoid expensive fibre or
copper-based Ethernet connections. Unfortunately, the promised Fixed Wireless
Access based on ‘millimeter wave’ (FWA) – essentially very high speed
connections between two points – requires significant infrastructure change
that the network providers are struggling to deliver. Rather than towers, FWA
is a very short range service and, as such, demands very high antenna density,
with small cells (antennas) deployed on buildings, street furniture and lamp
posts 10metres apart. Network providers have overestimated the willingness of
local authorities and building owners to provide the planning permission
required to install antennas on lampposts and buildings. Without antenna
density, FWA is not a viable, scalable option for business connectivity; at
best companies will have to wait three years or more before 5G offers a viable
wireless leased line alternative. At the time of writing, Three UK has just
launched their FWA offering in a few postcode areas in London for home
broadband, and already there are accounts of intermittent signal problems
impacting performance, which lends weight to the argument for more antenna
density being required to achieve stable, repeatable service coverage.

At worst, of course, the continuing
concerns regarding the potential health implications of 5G networks could
further delay installation. Local authorities will remain wary about exposing
the public to risk; unless and until the 5G industry can address in a
concerted, focused way that the persistent claims that running high frequency
networks in high density areas is not a risk, planners may meet resistance from
schools, hospitals, and community building managers.

There are other shortcomings. 5G
services today do not include any Service Level Agreements, undermining any
business confidence in the quality and repeatability of the service. There
seems to be no ‘network slicing’ (the technique to separate traffic types),
making it impossible to prioritise network traffic – such as IoT. Indeed, the
entire IoT aspect of 5G has been shelved for now, with both EE and Vodafone
confirming that IoT will not be part of the initial service. There is no
clarity regarding support for IoT devices in the future, the ability to upgrade
or migrate from current to 5G networks or any commercial information that would
help both Managed Service Providers and businesses build 5G into their future
IoT strategies.

What to do: Use what we have already – mature 4G services

So what are the options? 5G is
disappointing but companies cannot afford to postpone much needed network
investments in wireless primary and backup services indefinitely.  The good news is that 4G networks are now
mature – and that means both widely available and reliable. The arrival of 5G
will address the burgeoning capacity issue for 4G, which is great news; and
recent market price adjustments have taken 4G out of the last resort category
into a viable option for primary and resilience connectivity. 

4G is proven to support VoIP and
Unified Communication streaming; it can also be used for machine to machine
communication. Software Defined Networking (SDN) enables 4G to be blended with
other networks to deliver primary connections that deliver a reliable and
affordable leased line alternative. Furthermore, IoT is deliverable today using
the unlicensed spectrum and other standards, including NarrowBand IoT and
LoRaWAN, to enable mass IoT deployments (which will be incorporated later into
the emerging 5G standard, future proofing investment).

Critically, all of these services
come with SLAs; networks are reliable and accessible. Essentially, it is
possible today to meet business needs for affordable and consistent primary and
secondary connectivity services with the existing 4G network infrastructure.

Conclusion

5G
technology looks good on paper and there have been significant deployments in
the US and other countries. But there remain a number of very significant
infrastructure challenges that continue to undermine 5G value and impact
on our business landscape in the short to medium
term.

As the
5G network plans and service offerings stand today, businesses will struggle to
justify investment in the new technology.
However, while waiting for the promise of 5G to be realised, businesses can
extract significant value from 4G today. And with further price disruption
expected within the 4G market, the cost model will become ever more compelling,
for primary, secondary and IoT connectivity.

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