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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.