There has always been a fierce rivalry among wireless operators and equipment makers to be first to market with a new technology. But when it comes to 5G the stakes could be considerably higher. Racing ahead in 5G could help China dominate in the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence — boosting its GDP and industries over those in other countries and regions. Operators in North America and East Asia are leading the race to deploy 5G. Europe is expected to lag behind by at least a year, with some analysts predicting that EU 5G coverage may be limited to a few city centers and airports until 2022–2023. “There are some challenges that Europe clearly faces,” says Kester Mann, a principal analyst at CCS Insight, a UK-based research firm focused on the global wireless sector. “It won’t be among the leading regions.”
Like China, the U.S. will be a leading adopter of 5G. But the rollout will be less systematic and more ad-hoc. The largest U.S. telecoms companies, AT&T and Verizon, are planning to launch 5G services as early as this year. However, these early deployments are focused primarily on serving fixed connections — linking to a 5G receiver in a customer’s home or office, rather than to a mobile device.
Sprint announced it would launch a nationwide 5G network in the first half of 2019 in the U.S. While that could leave the operator behind rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless in terms of deployment, Sprint says it will offer more extensive coverage, rather than just a few cities. It would also be ahead of T-Mobile, which plans its rollout for 2020.
Europe’s Operators Take Cautious Approach
Europe also has big ambitions. In addition to a number of pan-EU trials, it is planning extensive smart-city trials and European operators are already announcing plans. Orange, for example, says it will launch France’s first-ever end-to-end test in the northern cities of Lille and Douai between mid-2018 and mid-2019 as soon it has the necessary authorizations. And the UEFA EURO 2020 soccer championship games, which will be played in 13 different cities in Europe, will be used to showcase 5G.
But mobile operators are taking a cautious approach to network rollouts. They complain that the EU isn’t creating the right regulatory environment to attract sufficient investment. In particular, they are unhappy that more in-market consolidation has been blocked and there isn’t greater pan-EU coordination of spectrum policy. Some countries are likely to make spectrum available much later than others, making it tough for the industry to gain economies of scale. This was one of the reasons 4G was rolled out more slowly in Europe than in the U.S. and East Asia.
Local Projects With Big Ambitions
While it seems almost certain that the region will not be an international frontrunner in the next generation of wireless technology, that is not stopping some European countries and cities from vying to become global 5G leaders in their own right.
For example, Barcelona aims to harness the city’s scientific and technology startup strengths as well as its ties to the annual Mobile World Congress to become an international 5G hub. Research centers located in Barcelona are focusing on 22 of the 37 European 5G research areas. While they and others involved in what is known as the 5GBarcelona initiative are participating in EU programs, they also want to create their own independent initiatives in order to attract international companies to test 5G technology in the city, says Carlos Grau, director of Mobile World Capital, the Barcelona-based nonprofit organization that helps organize Mobile World Congress and 4YFN, a sister conference focused on startups and innovation taking place at the same time. The goal is to boost the local economy and create jobs in Barcelona.
Meanwhile, in the UK, three British universities — King’s College London, Bristol University and the University of Surrey — are being linked up via 5G test beds thanks to a £16 million investment from the UK government to fund the first trials of end-to-end 5G systems.
The University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre, which is leading the project, is developing 5G radio technologies and a fully virtualized mobile core network; Bristol University is charged with deploying 5G capability in extensive “Smart City” and “Smart Campus” test beds, targeting full 5G and fiber infrastructure convergence; while King’s College London is driving ultra-low latency 5G tactile Internet developments with so-called “Internet of Skills” applications, which enable the transfer of expertise over great distances in real-time using robotics and haptic feedback. Ultra-low latency allows things in the virtual world to sync with the real- world, enabling a new paradigm known as Synchronized Reality. Uses include remotely controlling or repairing machines or conducting surgery on a patient from a distance. Through the King’s College London 5G initiative, the university is also co-designing 5G approaches with various sectors, including smart cities, smart transport, performing arts and health. The focus on specific industry vertical use cases is key, says Mischa Dohler, head of the Centre for Telecoms Research at King’s College and a former employee at the global telecoms operator Orange. “We have been out there talking to cultural spaces, big airports like Heathrow and hospitals,” he says. “There is a lot of appetite for low latency. Synchronized reality will permit manipulation of mission-critical applications at a distance. By creating demand we are ensuring that industry will understand what is the value and will not question the cost.” In December the global mobile operator Vodafone, Ericsson and King’s College performed what they said were the first successful 5G tests in the UK that work independently of 4G technology. King’s College was one of only a few applicants chosen by the global telecoms gear-maker Ericsson to test its 5G equipment. “That is important because King’s College is among the first to have an end-to-end coordinated system thanks to Ericsson and our in-house developments,” Dohler says.
Rolling out such end-to-end systems nationwide will require the installation of 5G-specific antennas, a costly, time-consuming process for mobile operators. Dohler, a member of the spectrum board of Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulatory agency, says the country may have found a way around this problem. “What I have proposed to the National Infrastructure Commission in the UK is a framework that would allow operators to negotiate a license to roll out antennas to all public street furniture in the country rather than having to do this on a regional or city scale,” says Dohler. “This would be a major game-changer and make rollout much faster and economical.”
Reasons for Optimism
While all 5G frequencies will not be available in the UK until 2020 due to spectrum availability issues, Dohler believes it is possible to build what he calls “100% of perceived coverage” by creating hotspots that would allow the pre-buffering of bandwidth-hogging applications while in a coverage zone. “The regulatory issues are not easy but they are not impossible,” he says.
There are also some other reasons for optimism. In the past wireless standards have been reliant on the development of hardware that had to be designed, installed and maintained by engineers. But 5G can run over commodity hardware, widening the field to new entrants. “5G is now a software industry and Europe is good at software — particularly B2B software,” says Dohler. 5G represents “an exciting opportunity” both for the UK and for Europe as a whole, he says, with the power to transform not just the tech sector, but all industries, for those countries, cities and companies that move fast enough to reap the advantages.