5G and the transformation of mobile networks
Tue 27 Feb 2018 | Kostas Katsaros
What does 5G have in store? Kostas Katsaros, 5G technologist at Digital Catapult, talks to John Bensalhia about its possibilities and opportunities
“5G is at its inflection point, transforming from visions of its future to a realistic delivery plan of the infrastructure that unlocks digital transformation of industrial activities.”
Kostas Katsaros, 5G technologist at Digital Catapult, explains the backdrop for his forthcoming presentation at Cloud Expo Europe London 2018.
Commercial deployments in this country are set to commence in only two years, and as Kostas explains, an active ecosystem has emerged around 5G. “A wide variety of 5G capabilities is being established, with views and roadmaps for trials, testbeds and deployments being proposed.”
Kostas says that the success of 5G depends, even more than previous mobile generations, on the level of successful innovation. “The future development of digital applications in the UK economy is underpinned by the success of 5G connectivity infrastructure.”
Co-ordinated and knowledgeable cross-sector innovation is critical to unlocking opportunities
“For example, the future self-driving cars with live information updates, AR-enabled remote maintenance, industrial automation powered by artificial intelligence, hyper-connected cities, emergency telemedicine from distant specialists, to emergency care providers at the scene and many more.”
“This collaboration between mobile and industries requires a better understanding around the opportunities and current activities, along with generating demand and coordinating innovation actions across UK industry, academia and local government.”
UK 5G ecosystem
Against this backdrop, Digital Catapult is undertaking a project to map the UK 5G Ecosystem. “Funded by Innovate UK, it will provide an impartial and evidence-based view of the current state of the UK 5G ecosystem to all interested parties,” says Kostas.
“We want to identify the full spectrum of 5G actors in the UK and their activities, the technology readiness they are targeting, and help to understand the opportunities, challenges and barriers being faced in adoption, deployment and local demand for 5G.”
Initial findings from Digital Catapult’s study have shown that the UK has a strong ecosystem around 5G and advanced digital infrastructures. As a result, Kostas says that co-ordinated and knowledgeable cross-sector innovation is critical to unlocking opportunities. “Barriers to 5G innovation are, equally, access to facilities and innovation expertise. 5G innovation should now focus on demand generation and new business models.”
As 5G technologist at Digital Catapult on the new 5G system architecture, Kostas concentrates on 5G network virtualisation and slicing, and its implementation. “Beyond the technical work and my interest in this technology, the reason I work at Digital Catapult is to see how these exciting network infrastructure technologies enable the development of new applications and services. Ones that will lead to new business models being created in a system that is used by billions of people in the world.”
Linking research to industry
“My research there was focused on Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) and how Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) can assist autonomous driving. During my time there, I participated in a number of European and Industrial funded projects, where we analysed the impact of ‘Day-1’ Co-operative Intelligent Transport System (C-ITS) applications and the evolution of vehicular communications from Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC) to hybrid (cellular/DSRC).”
“I also worked on the CARMA project where I lead the work on the Architecture Specifications and the Accelerated Mobile Edge Infrastructure development. That’s how I was introduced to the 5G and was impressed by its potential.”
Currently, Kostas is working on a project to map the 5G Ecosystem in the UK, where he is overseeing the academic activities, and technical activity classification and experimenting with the M-CORD open source platform for 5G experimental testbeds, which can enable new players (SMEs) to enter the up-to-now, closed ecosystem of mobile providers.
Digital Catapult is a technology innovation centre that unlocks digital growth in the UK economy by driving the early adoption of advanced digital technologies.
“It works with companies of all sizes to transform their businesses by accelerating the practical application of digital innovation,” explains Kostas. “We link industry, academia and government to bridge the gap between research and industry, finding the right technologies to solve problems, increase productivity and open up new markets faster.”
“We provide experimental and testing facilities and access to experts so that new services and applications can be trailed to brought to market faster and we do this across the UK via our five Innovation Centres. This breaks down barriers to technology adoption for start-ups and small businesses, de-risks innovation for enterprises and uncovers new commercial applications for digital technology in the fields of immersive, connectivity, data and artificial intelligence.”
Kostas adds that Digital Catapult works across a range of key technology drivers that it believes can positively disrupt business models and create competitive advantage.
Specifically, these are Future Networks (5G, the Internet of Things and associated enabling networking technologies such as Low-Powered Wide-Area networks); Intelligent (Artificial Intelligence and particularly machine learning); Immersive; and Augmented (Virtual and mixed realities, and related new forms of human interface).
“By applying business and technology know-how to the new commercial opportunities unlocked through Digital Catapult’s programmes and collaborations, new markets and opportunities can be created for UK digital companies,” says Kostas.
In the 5G sector, Digital Catapult’s strategy focuses on enabling innovation. Its mission is to accelerate the early development and testing of innovative business models that push the boundaries of 5G.
“We deliver this by building 5G facilities, and working with other organisations (like, for example, the Universities of Surrey and Bristol and King’s College London) where innovators can come together to test new applications and services,” says Kostas.
“We develop and promote open source solutions for technology blocks in the 5G system architecture. Because of our position between academia, industry and government, we work to foster an active and collaborative UK 5G ecosystem. We never work alone.”
“We have built a portfolio of 5G activities, from our first project with the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey, called 5G Innovation Gateway. This project started in 2014 (quite early for 5G) and it aimed to deliver a cluster of digital expertise and innovation around an evolving 5G technology testbed located at the University of Surrey, but also spanning other locations around the UK.”
From that, Digital Catapult learnt how to build engagement with SMEs around advanced digital infrastructure. “With generous support from Coast-to-Capital Local Enterprise Partnership (C2C LEP), in January 2017 Digital Catapult started a project to build and operate the 5G Brighton testbed,” recalls Kostas.
“It is a very interesting activity for us, as the focus is not purely on the 5G technology itself, but more on what and how new 5G services can be taken up by innovative SME businesses in ways that drives an earlier adoption of 5G than would have happened otherwise.”
“The mobile industry, including the R&D community, is extremely innovative – look at the transformation of the cellular services over the past 15-20 years. It is important for us to continue contributing to the cutting edge of the developments, and that is why we are also actively involved in novel open source implementations around 5G, such as the M-CORD.”
The deployment of the 5G testbeds is only the beginning, as Kostas explains. “We also need to develop a sustainable engagement model for an innovation ecosystem around them, which we have seen is very diverse and expanding. For that, we are associate partners to the recently announced 5G Innovation Network (5GIN), lead by Cambridge Wireless in partnership with TM Forum and Knowledge Transfer Network.”
“Moreover, as members of the NetWorld 2020 and 5GPPP Expert Groups, and NetWorld2020 SME Working Groups, Digital Catapult is actively collaborating with leading experts and co-ordinating on actions in the UK and EU in these directions.”
The next major phase of mobile telecommunications standards beyond the current 4G/IMT-Advanced standards is 5G mobile networks.
“Even though the first 5G standard was approved last December, and most Mobile Network Operators competing with each other over who will have the first 5G offering, wide commercial networks are expected to emerge around 2020,” comments Kostas.
Automation would be required in every aspect of the operational process from delivery, deployment, configuration, assurance and optimisation
“This is being defined around two clear visions: a service-led view which sees 5G as a consolidation of earlier cellular technologies, Wi-fi and other innovations providing far greater coverage and always-on reliability; and a step change in data speed and order of magnitude reduction in end-to-end latency. Its offerings of Sub-1ms latency and >1 Gbps bandwidth require a true generational shift in latency and bandwidth in Mobile Telecommunications.”
In order to achieve these characteristics, there will be transformational changes in the mobile networks. Kostas says that a common misconception is that 5G is mainly concerned with next generation radio (5GNR, mmWave) and cell-site evolution.
“The main challenge for operators in 5G is the 5G core and edge, including network slicing, ‘cloudification’ (essentially network virtualisation including NFV, SDN and cloud technologies) and what the operator calls ‘ultra-dense networks’ (densification). As an example, it is expected that nearly 500,000 small cells would be needed to cover London, in order to support gigabit wireless connections throughout the metropolitan area. Deployment of such large networks will be very costly.”
Kostas explains that managing such a complex system (“a network of networks”) is nearly impossible if done manually. “Automation would be required in every aspect of the operational process from delivery, deployment, configuration, assurance and optimisation.” With emerging concepts such as zero touch networks and service management, this enables faster and more efficient network slicing, which will be assisted by novel Machine Learning algorithms to optimise the available resources.
“What underpins the transformation of mobile networks is a diversification of the use cases/applications that 5G is targeting,” concludes Kostas. “The evolution of faster connections is covered by the enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) use case group. Along with that, massive machine type communications (mMTC) and ultra reliable low latency communications (URLLC) will be the innovative aspects and new revenue generating streams for mobile operators.”