5G and the digital economy - the technology PoV (1/2)

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks January 1, 2017
In four years, 5G WiFi offering multiple G/bit bandwidths will be upon us, so it is time for businesses to start thinking of what they’d like to achieve, what applications and tools they might need in that post-BT landline world

The views held by diginomica on the capabilities of the UK telecommunications industry are well-documented, especially in the important mobile and broadband internet services areas.

We are not alone the views held. This reached its nadir recently when a report from the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) roundly slammed the UK’s best efforts out in the field, noting that when it comes to the current leading edge of mobile comms, 4G, the UK now ranks 54th in the world.

The government wants and indeed will need the UK to be a nation standing firmly on the bleeding edge of high capacity, reliable global business communications. This will be particularly important with the management of post-Brexit trade, which will need to offer high bandwidth, real time communications with some of the farthest corners of globe.

Yet with the next generation of mobile comms – 5G – expected to be widely available in some four years’ time now, the UK’s current poor-to-dreadful capabilities in mobile coverage and service delivery are likely to make any trading partner think twice – at least – about signing any deals.

Just to get the UK up the current 4G coverage table will require significant investment in infrastructure, and as any investment programme will be dominated by BT and its’ infrastructure arm, OpenReach, the chances of that happening seem slight right now. So the chances of the UK being ready to exploit the arrival of 5G is certainly open to question, even if the Government does back it with the £1 billion investment in fibre broadband and 5G promised in the Autumn Statement.


As some services using an intermediate set of technologies, collectively known as 4.5G , are already being trialled by systems vendor Huawei and service provider Vodafone, there is another important aspect to the coming of 5G that is, ultimately dependent on those investments being made, but which will require business users in particular to start thinking seriously about how they are going to exploit the many advantages of the coming technologies.

One advantage of 4.5G is that exploits some of the infrastructure technologies required by 5G, so service providers can start getting a return on some of their investment before 5G itself goes live.

There are some serious changes coming, not just with 5G communications itself but in other areas of computing. With the latter some of them are in play – to a limited extent at least – already. In particular Software Defined Networking and its younger sibling, the Software Defined Data Center are both starting to get real traction amongst users. Another here is in-memory processing, though the only notable contender here is SAP’S HANA architecture, which remains a bleeding edge too far for many users as yet.

But coupling these with the dramatic increase in performance and bandwidth coming with 5G is likely to open significant opportunities for both users and vendors to innovate in the way business services are delivered and consumed. And these capabilities will be available to all types of company, large or small, and to every member of staff in those companies.

One of those innovation areas is likely to be a new demand for greater mobility within and around the business community. This in turn may well create a major re-think by business on the way in which they interact with their staff. Indeed, it has often been suggested that the whole process of employing staff, or at least requiring them to come to `location X’ for the purpose of doing their job, may be approaching its sell-by date.

The alternative is that everyone becomes effectively self-employed, which is fine in theory but creates an organisation nightmare with current infrastructures and management tools. HR departments alone would probably melt under the load, while departmental managements would spend all their time managing contractor issues and interactions rather than what the department was established to do.

Here, of course, there then comes some classic contenders for AI-driven, automated infrastructure systems management and HR/talent management tools.


The arrival of 5G will bring some fundamental changes for all users, for it could take the market away from not just BT, but all providers of fixed line services. The mix of capabilities available means that many business users will move their entire service requirement away from fixed, cable-based services and onto all-wireless infrastructures. Not least, this be because there is no way of defeating the reality that cabling the last mile from local exchange to individual properties is rarely going to provide a healthy RoI.

Future implementations of 5G fall into three main categories – narrow band applications in areas such as IoT where communicating with thousands of sensors are the key requirement. The middle track is where most business and consumer users will reside, where faster broadband offering higher data rates will be important.

The third category is also going to be attractive to many businesses. This is millimetre wave band, where frequencies of up to 30 GHz can provide very high levels of data traffic. There is, of course, a downside to this, which is that signals at these frequencies do not propagate well, which therefore means they are strictly line-of-sight transmissions without any ability to pass through objects put in their way.

In practice, therefore, the most common 5G infrastructure will be a mixture of fibre optics to local or regional cells – whether that is in a housing neighbourhood for consumer users or to smaller microcells in an office campus environment for business users. Large enterprises could then have microcells in individual offices.

The other factor 5G brings here is the ability to mix different transmission environments together. It would be possible to have high capacity fibre optics to a large, millimetre wave microcell that then fed cells that used lower frequencies with better signal propagation capabilities to service individual users and systems in a typical office environment.

One important contributor here is this ability to re-use existing technologies to fulfil user needs. For example, one of the key established technologies being pursued is re-purposing existing TV frequencies. The idea is to aggregate them together to provide fatter bandwidth for users.

The key fundamental for users to bear in mind here is that the data component is growing at an unprecedented rate and there is no stopping it. The bottom line is that it is going to break the existing networks of today at some time, and some in the telecommunications trade suggest the point is close where services start to degrade.

In part two of this feature, we look at the business impact of 5G.