Can the evolution of 5G networks drive the digital revolution?

The continuing roll-out of 5G networks across the UK promises the genuine opportunity for a digital revolution, creating a new world of smart cities and digitally enabled industries. Pat Coxen, Managing Director of network infrastructure at Mobile Broadband Network Ltd (MBNL), explains why.

While media headlines and telecoms adverts focus on a future of ultra-fast movie downloads and crystal-clear telephone calls, the reality of 5G technology beyond this consumer hype is its potential to drive a nationwide digital revolution.

As the name suggests, 5G is one step beyond 4G communications, a service which has provided the UK with a widespread network for high-speed Internet browsing and video download capability. 5G technology has the ability to transfer large amounts of data at ultra-high speeds, using efficient new mobile hardware and software that reduces the capacity issues commonly seen in high-usage areas such as rail stations and sports stadiums, and opening up digital opportunities currently only provided by fixed fibre connections.

It’s a really exciting prospect. The expectation is that this enhanced performance will prompt a step change in the nation’s digital ambition – prompting a revolution that heralds the arrival of smart cities, autonomous vehicles and deliveries, plus digitally enabled healthcare services and a range of new industries.

Certainly, 5G creates business opportunities that haven’t existed before,” explains Pat Coxen, Managing Director of MBNL, the firm responsible for managing and enhancing the mobile network infrastructure for telecom providers BTEE (formerly known as EE) and Three. "But I don’t think that the drivers for a digital revolution are limited to simply 5G technology. Actually, enhancing all of the UK’s fixed and mobile digital infrastructure across the UK remains the critical step."

Invest in new; maintain and enhance existing

MBNL manages around 14,500 mobile network sites covering the whole of the UK, which comprise a mix of on-street equipment – usually mounted on single poles, greenfield macro sites involving large-scale steel lattice towers, brownfield and industrial sites and rooftop sites encompassing the likes of industrial locations and private dwellings, often in built-up areas. "The reality", he says, "is that every site varies massively in terms of the site challenges and installation limitations when it comes to both upgrading existing 4G and installing new 5G equipment."

We’ve already kicked off the mass deployment of nationwide 5G infrastructure, building sites ready to be switched on by EE and Three.

"It isn’t a simple task and it will take time to make the services available to all customers everywhere," explains Coxen. "However, we are moving as quickly as we can."

"Some of the hardware required to provide new 5G services is larger than previous ‘Gs’ so we need to upgrade towers, in particular, to cater for and accommodate this new equipment. We’re very conscious of the physical disruption this kind or work can cause so we want to absolutely minimise the number of work visits, focusing equally on tackling the most important upgrades to existing network equipment at the same time as building new. It is not always bigger – where we can harden the existing infrastructure to make it more resilient, we will."

Planning reform to meet the UK broadband coverage challenge

The UK government’s ambition is to provide widespread high-speed 4G or fibre broadband connections across the entire nation. Given that only an estimated 23 percent of homes and businesses can currently access a decent mobile signal or broadband service indoors, with so-called "not-spots" mainly being in rural areas, it is clear that focus on building out the missing sections of 4G and fibre network are more likely to achieve this ambition.

"Government is really keen to tackle the nation’s not-spots, and we look forward to supporting them and our shareholders to make this happen," says Coxen.

Earlier this year, the government promised to reform planning laws to help telecom firms develop their rural fibre and mobile networks. Consultation has looked at potential changes to permitted development rights around, amongst other issues, the permitted height of new masts and the widespread development of building-based masts to upgrade existing networks and support new 5G equipment.

Such simplification of the planning rules should, the government hopes, boost private investment in the market, particularly in difficult rural areas, and so complete the 4G network and accelerate the development of the 5G revolution.

"Planning rule changes will certainly help us with infrastructure installation, however there is more to do," explains Coxen. "Changes to allowable mast heights, for example, would give us the ability to provide better coverage in a more cost-efficient way  the higher the mast, the easier it is to get over geographical issues blocking signals and increase coverage. In an unfettered world we’d like to simply and quickly upgrade all our infrastructure, but unfortunately life is not always that easy. Simplification of the planning regime does help to accelerate the roll-out of new technology."

A large scale 5G network roll-out programme

For the next five years, there will be significant 5G roll-out activity, as the business cases for installation start to become clearer. It is likely that the roll out of 5G will take a significant amount of time to complete. And while the 4G roll-out was, says Coxen, about "doing more, doing it faster and changing the way that we interact with our smartphones and mobile devices, the 5G roll-out is different and requires the design and installation of bigger, more complex equipment in order to give customers a significantly richer experience and create the digital infrastructure to transform the way the we all live, travel and work."

Being able to repeatedly deliver large scale infrastructure change is vital to the economics of the "large and complicated" programme, he says. Acquiring the property and land rights to upgrade equipment can be a long and drawn-out process  making replacing a tower quite a significant piece of engineering.

"Whenever we carry out work on site, we have a prime objective around health and safety and ensuring that the finished work is fit for purpose," says Coxen, adding that the 5G programme raises the scale of the on-site challenge.

This is a great period for the industry. We are starting to scale up the number of sites and the work being carried out.

"That means there is a vital and business critical role for our health, safety and quality assurance partner to ensure that all the work carried out by our contractors is done safely, and to the highest possible standards of excellence. Building and maintaining an industry-leading health and safety regime, with our build partners, that protects all workers is a priority."

Understanding the business case for investment in 5G technology

With 5G’s complexity and scale comes cost. And given that the mobile providers are currently having to position 5G services with no incremental increase in tariff, it is clear that establishing the robust business case for 5G is not yet entirely resolved.

As such, Coxen says:

A fully digitally enabled landscape provides more than just a download capacity for the consumer market. It is about creating machine-to-machine capability and communication – enabling innovations such as e-health, e-agriculture and, of course, smart cities.

"It enables and creates a very different living paradigm  and, necessarily, that will require more than just an enhanced broadband communication network.

"One of the things that is becoming very obvious is that it is going to be a very collaborative 5G world  there is no question that progressive partnerships between network operators and industry will form the catalyst for innovation in a 5G world and we are already seeing examples of this within Three and BT. There will be a number of main actors – including, for example, the mobile providers, government, the chip and handset manufacturers, port authorities, local enterprise partnerships, councils, the health service and the large-scale car manufacturers to name but a few.

"The full extent to which the 5G digital revolution will transform our lives is hard to predict – but the opportunities that this technology enables, at home, at work and in our cities, are unlimited."

How 5G networks can revolutionise smart city development

  • A connected environment: 5G has a high connection capacity, meaning that not only can more individuals connect to the network but, significantly, more IOT devices can link, opening up the world of truly connected devices in the home, office and across the public realm.
  • Transport automation: 5G enables high-speed data transfer with low latency, which means the real time, data-based decision-making required to control individual and fleets of autonomous vehicles is possible.
  • Security and safety: 5G makes it possible for public safety agencies to analyse high-quality video images, audio inputs and data from other sensors using artificial intelligence and machine learning tools, helping to reduce crime and increase transport and public safety.
  • A better environment: 5G will transform a city’s ability to manage its traffic and services, such as reducing congestion caused by commuting and deliveries, identifying and addressing pollution hotspots while also monitoring and managing in real time energy demand and consumption.

Engineering to underpin a new 5G network

MBNL is a joint venture with 3 and BTEE  formerly known as EE, but now owned by BT. While the roll-out of 5G is certainly high on its agenda, the firm also has to balance this work with an on-going programme to maintain and update the existing 2G, 3G and 4G networks.

Turner & Townsend has been working with MBNL and EE for over 19 years, helping to manage and assure the continuous programme of work to maintain and upgrade the network. The 5G upgrade is technically a more complex task, compared to going from 3G to 4G, which was in most cases, simply a case of hanging new equipment and antenna's on existing towers.

A 5G future requires different equipment compared to the existing 4G networks and will likely see a backbone of fibre trunk routes hooked up to fewer, but larger masts, carrying higher power transmission equipment. Clusters of smaller transponders will then eventually be used to fill in and ensure full coverage for the network of high frequency, short wavelength 5G signals.