Local government, 5G and the question of funding

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) has just published Next generation mobile technologies: A 5G strategy for the UK. The report argues that delivering 5G should be regarded as a key driver of the UK’s modern industrial strategy and the DCMS has put councils at the heart of its plans to deliver next generation mobile technologies.

This latest government strategy paper on 5G ­has been welcomed across the industry and it singles out local government as being central to its delivery – with clear implications for funding.

Councils will play a critical role in developing and delivering digital infrastructure because of the many roles it plays; from planning and asset management; to community engagement and economic growth. And councils who are actively looking to create connectivity plans and engage with the telecoms sector, will be rewarded.

To be at the forefront of the government’s plans and funding, councils need to:

  • Be ready and willing to negotiate with the telecoms sector, drawing on all of their experience (good and bad) from delivering faster broadband.
  • Draw up a detailed asset management plan for deployment of digital infrastructure, looking at possible sites for base stations (lamp posts, bus stops, public buildings)
  • Review existing planning policies – are they 5G ready and what are the planning barriers to deployment?
  • Don’t just think about 5G – are there any other creative ways to improve mobile connectivity for their residents? If 3G and 4G are still a problem, what other technologies are available to help?

The DCMS is looking at devolving powers, budgets and responsibilities to local areas to accelerate the implementation of 5G. There’s no doubt that proactive councils will be first in line to receive any funding and they will also have the best chance of being selected for pilot programmes.

Our advice is to get involved early. As key advisors to business, government, regulators (Ofcom) and the industry on this issue we welcome the government’s strategy and are keen to work with local councils to drive it forward.

If you want support to develop your connectivity plan or find out how best to negotiate with the telecoms sector to achieve what your community needs, please get in touch.

You can view the DCMS strategy paper “Next Generation Mobile Technologies: A 5G Strategy for the UK” here.


Remote coverage: all for one and one for all?… John Okas, Strategic Wireless Business Consultancy

Automated, self-driving vehicles. Ultra-high broadband speeds. On-demand mobile video. Internet of Things (IoT) services that help reduce energy consumption. Wearable devices that aid health management.

If there’s a way 5G can benefit society that hasn’t been thought of yet, it’s surely only a matter of time before it finds its way into a serious study and from there into an excitable headline.

But maybe we should take a step back at this point, and consider the reality for a number of people — a reality that is far removed from watching a Harry Potter box set on your mobile. It’s a chastening thought, at a time when governments all over the world are setting aside or seeking out vast quantities of spectrum to deliver a high speed, high throughput 5G mobile future, that there are more than a few areas of the British Isles that would settle for good old 2G, if they could only get a signal.

The British Infrastructure Group (BIG) of cross-party MPs recently noted, in its report Mobile Coverage: A good call for Britain?, that the quality of mobile phone coverage has remained ‘alarmingly poor’ in rural areas of the UK. One third of mobile phone users, or 17 million people, across the UK report poor or no reception at home, and 28 per cent of all rural areas in the UK remain without coverage.

So what’s the answer? One option (from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport) is compulsory network sharing: national roaming, in other words. But this is hardly a business-friendly approach: where, for instance, is the operator incentive for further investment? And, in any case, what good does this do for signal-free blackspots?

A less contentious — and probably more effective — solution could be for UK regulators and mobile operators to pursue a multi-operator shared spectrum solution. In this approach a single network is built and operated for remote areas by a ‘neutral host’ — which all operators can then offer services on. Not only is this is a technically feasible system that can work with existing standards, but it is much more cost-effective and attractive for operators, while meeting consumer requirements for coverage and choice.

But how urgent is this coverage need? It’s important to remember that limited coverage isn’t just about people who choose to live in cottages on some windswept moor and can’t get a signal. It’s about a lot of UK villages and schools. It’s about bringing mobile broadband and with it fast remote medical diagnosis to hard-to-reach areas. It’s about helping farmers to find or treat animals and effectively manage crops. It’s about helping businesses to feel confident about moving outside urban areas where land is cheaper. It is urgent – and it’s important to get it right.

It’s also worth remembering that a coverage solution would be more credible if it could be applied effectively to other countries facing similar challenges. A neutral host, shared spectrum approach could work for many territories and not just the UK.

And if operators as well as regulators can agree on the benefits of one approach, perhaps we could then deliver that 5G vision — to everyone – whether at home, at work, in their car or on public transport.

Demise of GSM-R highlights the need for radical rethinking of wireless communications in the rail industry

train-railway-s-bahn-transportThe International Railway Union has recently called for a replacement for the GSM-R network to be developed as a matter of urgency.

GSM-R is the modified version of GSM, which was developed for the specific needs of the rail industry’s operational needs. However, as the TelecomTV article above points out, the technology has had a notoriously volatile history and is now past its prime.

GSM-R was originally developed in the 1990s to deliver a specific set of functionality for the rail industry, but it was decided that it would use spectrum outside of the main GSM frequencies.

This decision meant that GSM-R required completely bespoke equipment, which in turn significantly raised the cost of deployment and has created commercial challenges ever since for the rail industry. As the International Railway Union itself said: “The use of … GSM-R has proven expensive for the railways, both in terms of capital and operational expenditure.”

The challenge for the industry is that while GSM-R is now nearing the end of its life, the ETCS (European Train Control System) is due to be in place until 2050 and as such, the rail industry needs a replacement solution for GSM-R. Currently there are many different views on the functionality and technology of a GSM-R replacement with LTE and 5G being ‘in the frame’. Whether the use of such technologies in near commercial off-the-shelf variants is some way away from being decided.

What this highlights is that wireless communications continue to be a major challenge for the rail industry — and clearer strategic thinking is the only way the industry is going to solve its challenges.

As our recent report Under pressure: tackling railway connectivity in 2016 outlined, on-board connectivity for passengers also remains a significant technical and commercial challenge for rail operators.

Part of the challenge is that there is a disconnect between the issue of on-board connectivity and how a solution could be architected in such a way to bolster rail operators’ safety-critical operational requirements. Any investment in new infrastructure for improving passenger experiences doesn’t have to be siloed. In fact, we see a huge opportunity for infrastructure investments to also support on-board train operator services, as well as potentially safety-critical functionality. Each new service supported by upgraded infrastructure creates its own opportunities for generating value, thereby helping to recoup investment.

The introduction of new standards, technologies and systems into the rail environment tends, for many reasons, to be a slow process — thankfully matched by long asset lives.

With the multiple challenges of providing broadband wireless for passenger and on-train staff use and replacing GSM-R in train control applications, this does provide the industry the opportunity to investigate whether one system could ultimately serve all requirements. Much like the emergency services moving to public cellular networks — something perhaps unthinkable not that many years ago — the rail industry might have to rethink wireless connectivity. The scale, complexity and safety critical nature of rail systems means this will be very challenging to say the least.

You can read more of our thoughts on these issues or feel free to contact us directly.

Why data analytics is key to the future of mobile networks and user experience

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 11.06.27

It’s become common now for the big vendors to provide the telecoms and wireless industries with a regular view of the growth or decline in various sorts of traffic, services and devices.

The most recent update comes from Ericsson, with the publication of its latest Ericsson Mobility Report covering the period to 2021. As you might perhaps expect, Ericsson has forecast significant growth in a wide range of factors. Some of the highlight figures include:

  • Mobile broadband subscriptions: CAGR of 15%
  • LTE subscriptions: CAGR of 25%
  • Data traffic per smartphone: CAGR of 35%
  • Total mobile data traffic: CAGR of 45%

Video to dominate traffic growth
Ericsson expects video to continue to play a large part in the data traffic growth. In 2015 video was some 40–55% of the total mobile data traffic depending on the device type and is forecast to have a CAGR of 55% to 2021. By 2021 Ericsson forecasts that video will account for some 70% of mobile data traffic. As the report notes: “Today’s teens… have no experience of a world without online video streaming.”

To meet such growth, LTE continues to provide fast speeds with current deployments providing up to 600Mbps (Cat 11), which will grow to 1Gbps LTE (Cat 16) with deployments in in 2016 according to Ericsson.

5G to start in 2020
Looking beyond 4G and the massive growth, Ericsson forecasts that 5G services will commence in 2020 based on ITU IMT2020 standards, and that there will be 150 million 5G subscribers by 2021 led by rollouts in South Korea, Japan, China and the US.

IoT to overtake mobile phones
In one of the most eye-catching predictions, Ericsson suggests that the number of IoT connected end points — such as cars, machines, smart meters and consumer tech — will overtake the number of mobile phones in 2018. IoT devices are forecast to grow at a CAGR of 23% over the period, and what is worth noting is the connectivity types including non-cellular IoT connectivity and the various low-power wide-area (LPWA) proprietary systems like SIGFOX, LoRa and Ingenu. Ericsson forecasts non-cellular IoT to be almost 10 times the cellular IoT by 2021.

VoLTE set for rapid growth
Voice over LTE (VoLTE) also features in the report. Ericsson forecasts that the 100 million VoLTE subscriptions at the end of 2015 will increase to 2.3 billion by 2021 — representing over 50% of all LTE subscriptions. In the US, Canada, South Korea and Japan this figure rises to over 80%.

What does this all mean?
One of the key conclusions from the report is that managing the user experience is key for network operators and infrastructure providers – and all of the trends highlighted above are making that an increasingly complex challenge. As such, Data analytics are increasingly being applied to find the relationship between user experience and network performance statistics. Such an understanding is vital for operators to prioritise network investment as well as keep churn low. As the data from the report shows, operators face many calls on capex and opex as new technology combined with new use cases (and hopefully more spectrum), gives operators new opportunities and as well new challenges.

Of course, vendors put time and effort in to these reports to bring these challenges into sharp focus for the operators along with whatever solutions the vendor may have to offer. Real Wireless provides deep independent expertise in all of the areas and topics covered in such vendor reports including LTE, 5G and IoT. We’re involved in the business, technology, regulation and markets, working with all parts of the ecosystem including vendors, operators, regulators and end users. We help bring clarity and understanding to the challenges as well as the opportunities in the wireless world — without bias.

Connecting vehicles and the growing M2M market: The Transport SIG

Real Wireless expert John Okas is one of four people who recently founded a Cambridge Wireless Special Interest Group (SIG), dedicated to looking at the growing ‘Connected vehicle’ sector.

The connected car is a concept that gets a lot of people excited and rightly so. The potential applications are enormous and it’s one of the more tangible areas of the nascent Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications market.

The new SIG will look at the part played by wireless in the automotive and transport sector, covering private and public vehicles, as well as road, rail and air transport systems.

Its remit covers everything from streaming music to your car, autonomous cars, and Wi-Fi on trains, buses and planes, through to vehicle-to-infrastructure and vehicle-to-vehicle road management systems and pay as you go insurance. It will even examine the connected bus on demand services that inform users where a bus is and its estimated time of arrival.

It’s not just drivers who will benefit from these services; this technology will bring a lot of new companies into the space, including many who will never have previously seen wireless as a potential revenue stream.

For the manufacturer and its brand it provides new opportunities to keep the driver tied in to its ecosystem, via services such as remote diagnostics, vehicle tracking, servicing and preventative maintenance that detects issues that may need attention. These are likely to be connected using a 3G/4G unit in the vehicle, with a fixed SIM that is inaccessible to the driver.

There is also the potential for Wi-Fi connectivity to be supplied to the vehicle, as many cities and mobile operators look to providing carrier grade Wi-Fi services.

The M2M sector offers a lot of potential, but it’s also an incredibly complex and technical ‘system of systems’. Vehicles are set to have significant computational, connectivity and human-to-machine interfacing capabilities, both built-in and stemming from passengers’ phones and tablet devices.

There are plenty of technical and commercial challenges ahead before this sector will mature, and that’s why we’ve helped establish this new Cambridge Wireless SIG. If we’re to hope to make the most of this new technology and market, all of the companies in the space need to get together to share their collective expertise and experience.

Smart thinking needed for smart metering communications network

Smart metering is part of broader package of measures to get consumers to be more aware of their energy usage and in the process hopefully help them to reduce it. It’s a simple concept – give people historical and real time data on their usage, what it is costing them and they are going to try and reduce their consumption. Plus it means the end of the meter reading person and estimated bills along with the introduction of real time tariffs. Include electricity, gas and water and it’s an unstoppable idea and common sense really.
It’s going to cover nearly 50m homes and business locations in the UK. Think natural gas conversion, add transition to digital TV and include Electronic Patient Records and you’ve got some idea of the scale and complexity of this project.
So let’s just focus on one small but crucial part of this – how to provide two-way communication to electricity smart meters located in every household and business premises across the UK. Why two-way? Well, aside from any error correction requirements, power companies want to be able to utilise variable tariffs dependant on demand – so the price per unit at 07:30 might be higher than at say 11:00 that same day. A sort of real time version of ‘off peak’. This requires updating the meters perhaps several times a day depending on the way the smart meters work.
There are perhaps three basic paths to achieving this connectivity on such a scale:

  • Wireless
  • Broadband via the telephone line or cable service
  • Power line communications.

Using domestic or business broadband can be problematical because it isn’t a controlled connection – for example if you use one of those smart plug adaptors then your router might be turned off when you turn off the PC, in which case the smart meter would disappear from the network! Power line communications looks more promising but something on this scale hasn’t really been done before and there seem to be many issues.
So perhaps wireless is the most suitable solution – but what sort of wireless? Use a current network – such as cellular, satellite, terrestrial broadcast infrastructure or build a new network dedicated to smart metering. This is the big question but not unexpectedly it gets hard to separate fact from sales pitch. And nobody has designed, built and operated such a network on this scale before – so we’re heading into unchartered territory.
Currently the user requirements for such a network have not been published as the formal procurement process has yet to start, but we can guess the following based on the fact this is basically part of a billing system for what is considered a part of our critical national infrastructure.
1. High availability with a reliable connection to all premises right at the existing meter location
2. Secure – to protect from fraud and cyber attack
3. Simple to install – essentially the meter will be installed by an electrician and the comms will be just expected to work
4. Reliable, self powered for the lifetime of the network – 20-25 years
5. Simple to network manage and fault find with easy first line maintenance
The smart meter will probably incorporate the wireless unit including antenna and this unit will be installed by an electrician in the same location as the current meter. In older houses and buildings these are typically in cellars, under the stairs and so are probably in the last location you would choose to ensure good wireless connectivity!
Of the existing networks cellular is probably the most suitable – after all this is just M2M on a grand scale, an area that the network operators are keen to grow. Satellite probably fails the common sense test due to the location of the meters – installing a satellite dish on properties is not part of the plan! The utilities already run SCADA networks to control their switches and valves and to monitor flows – but these are slow speed systems design for low volumes of terminals so these networks wouldn’t scale up.
The key questions for cellular are capacity, coverage and resilience. Like most M2M services the data volume per meter per day is probably quite low – especially compared to smart phone usage which is currently the holy grail of service providers. So even in dense urban environments capacity shouldn’t be a problem. Coverage however is likely to be challenging – indoor coverage even for phone use is often a problem hence the reason why femtocells were developed. Coverage under the stairs and in a cellar just makes the problem worse. So the coverage question is somewhat unquantified at the moment but our day to day experience suggests there are issues that need to be addressed here. Resilience of the service no doubt set against tough service level obligations under various failure scenarios will also present significant challenges to a public cellular network operator. Whilst generally cellular infrastructure is very reliable, smart metering presents a different environment and unique challenges. Much work and risk analysis will need to be undertaken against the specific service level requirements of the smart metering network in order for a cellular operator to determine whether they would be prepared to contract to such obligations and stand behind the financial consequences of failing to meet them. Then just to add to the interest there’s the question of transition to 4G and the possible ceasing of 2G, 2.5G & 3G services within the lifetime of the smart meter network. Technology refresh at the premise level would be something to try and avoid.
So a lot of questions to work through and no doubt some unique solutions will be required to enable a cellular network operator to provide a nationwide service suitable for smart metering.
Looking at a new network build then whilst you are starting from a green field and so will end up with the optimal network the capital costs and operational costs start to be a major concern as does the availability and cost of suitable spectrum. Plus there is the general hassle and risks associated with building a new national network. Given the number of shared antenna sites available it is unlikely that many new sites will need to be constructed but antennas, base stations, IP networking equipment and backhaul will need to be installed at several thousand sites. Ideal spectrum is probably around the UHF range – balancing range against in building coverage. Digital dividend spectrum would therefore suffice. Again trials will need to be done and a much larger series of measurements undertaken right next to the existing meters to assess just how many base stations will be required to achieve the necessary blanket coverage. Then there is the question of which wireless technology should be used – a proprietary technology, WiMAX, Wi-Fi, Mesh or more traditional UHF mobile radio – or perhaps a combination. In many ways this decision is tied to the spectrum to be used and the architecture and signalling protocols used by the smart meter system itself. Currently most smart meter vendors appear to use proprietary signalling schemes bringing the potential for customer ‘lock in’. For a project of this size multiple suppliers in open competition for the smart meters themselves will deliver cost benefits as well as minimising the risks of delivering the sheer quantities needed. So perhaps some open standards are called for to allow the smart meter market to develop rapidly without concerns about the technology choice. What is clear is that the choice of spectrum, the type of wireless technology, the network architecture and the over the air signalling scheme need to be closely tied together, modelled and field tested to ensure that the system is scalable and robust in the real world.
Whether this new dedicated network build approach turns out to be a lower cost solution – in terms of total cost of ownership over the lifetime of the network – compared to using a public cellular network is a tough call and both options need to be looked at in depth using real costs and well founded engineering assumptions.
Either way it’s a great opportunity for many businesses and consortia have already been formed and are being formed to bid as you read this. The Government is pushing to accelerate the rollout of smart metering in order to deliver the benefits earlier – indeed since writing this blog over the last few days fifteen new documents – amounting to several hundred pages – providing further detail on the project have been released by the Department for Energy & Climate Change and are available here . The procurement process is planned to formally start in the autumn.
The smart metering project is hugely complex and the communications network is just one small but equally challenging piece with many questions currently unanswered. We all know that large projects such as this typically face huge cost increases and delays downstream as forecasts, optimism and expectations give way to Murphy’s Law, changes in the requirements and the gritty reality of the implementation team. If only 1% of the installed meters fail to appear on the network or have unreliable connectivity that could be almost 0.5 million locations that have to be visited and fixed. That’s going to be expensive!
Oh and we haven’t even talked about how the electricity meter is going to communicate with the gas meter and water meter.
- John Okas