10 things to ask the new Minister for Digital Future

Just before Christmas, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) published Connected Future, looking at what the UK needs to do to become a ‘world leader in 5G deployment’.

The media reporting focussed on the revelations that the UK’s 4G coverage is worse than that of Albania and Peru (a claim since questioned by Ofcom) and hailed 5G as the opportunity to put things right.

As the authors of a paper that contributed to the NIC’s final report, we’ve watched the media fall out with interest. We don’t share the nation’s obsession with next generation labels, but we are interested in the recommendation that the government appoints a digital champion, or cabinet minister, to take responsibility for our digital future.

Because connectivity is as important to consumers and business, as gas and electricity. And it’s our conviction that we can’t wait for 5G in 2020 to ‘put things right’, we need to get the basics right now.

So Cabinet Minister for our Digital Future, here are the 10 things we need you to do:

  • Exploit the capabilities of 4G and focus on truly universal wireless coverage at last (e.g. bring connectivity to not-spots and rail), predictable and consistent speeds more important than peak speeds. (More targeted Government funding or carrots/sticks for MNOs).
  • Create the regulatory environment for key verticals to have access to optimized wireless networks, not one size fits all – e.g. incentivize MNOs to invest in network slicing.
  • Lower barriers to entry for new MVNO operators e.g. with flexible spectrum pricing and allocation, more shared/unlicensed spectrum.
  • Post-Brexit, create a net neutrality program which allows investors in networks to monetize their infrastructure effectively (e.g. high QoS services) while retaining open access to core services.
  • Create meaningful structures for dialog between spectrum owners and vertical industry players (e.g. transport) to break down the mistrust, and ensure advanced 4G and 5G serves more than one vertical.
  • Provide support and funding for integrated smart city initiatives – reduce rates and incentivise investment by making access to publically owned assets easier.
  • Invest in radio skills and in testbeds for all kinds of wireless, not just 5G.
  • Ensure that 5G consultation is held with all sectors, and prioritize resources according to areas of social and economic impact – forget about 5G ‘leadership’
  • Ensure that all new or upgraded buildings and infrastructure such as road and rail network are obliged to consider how wireless communications will be deployed in the environment they are creating.
  • Encourage and incentivise private investors to make greater use of shared infrastructure (structures, transmission & power) to deliver wireless services.

Real Wireless are independent wireless experts. To find out more about us go to www.realwireless.biz

Who really needs near-zero latency?

One of the ‘generational’ shifts associated with 5G is the promise of near-zero latency. Now for most engineers, the reduction of latency is generally seen as a necessary good, which is why putting it at the heart of the 5G value proposition is so rarely questioned. But when it comes to making the business case for 5G, it’s important to start making judgements about how much value can be attributed to ultra-low latency and the use cases in which it is mission critical.

It also means making a call about when such applications are likely to achieve the critical mass necessary to deliver significant and sustainable returns that justify investment.

Latency has fallen across the cellular generations. It was around 500ms with 2G, perhaps 100ms with 3G and around 30-50ms with 4G. As surveys have noted, falling from 100ms in 3G to 50ms in 4G has improved user satisfaction. Further improvements may be both harder to deliver and have less impact and ROI associated with them.

Current LTE networks deliver a theoretical latency across the radio interface of 10ms, which translates in practice to around 40ms once delays in the core and external networks are taken into account. Improving this latency would not materially change the experience for most use cases.

For example, video streaming can accommodate very high latency using buffering. Web browsing does not improve materially with latencies below about 50ms. For any application with video it is worth remembering that the frame refresh rate on most devices is effectively 25Hz – which means a video frame is replaced by another every 40ms, generating the perception of a moving picture. Having a latency below 40ms does not help for such applications since the video will not refresh faster – and even if it did it would not be perceptible.

So where might significantly lower latency help? Possibly with ‘tactile’ communications, where a user is remotely controlling a robot using, for example, a special glove, which provides feedback on the touch sensation although there is some debate over whether latencies lower than 20-40ms are needed for this. But this is likely to be an indoor application where a wired or short-range wireless solution is more likely to be used.

Some claim low latency is needed for control of autonomous vehicles. However, it is likely there will be reluctance to depend upon low latency network connectivity for emergency situations such as harsh braking from a nearby car; direct car-to-car communications and advanced sensors are better suited to this situation.

Of course, the lower the latency the better, but it is hard to see any economically compelling cellular applications where reducing latency below that of LTE, the latency performance of which is still being improved by the standards, would make a material difference to the user experience.

At Real Wireless, whilst we are fully behind research towards future low latency communications technologies, we believe that there are still significant gains to be had from leveraging the full value of LTE investments and that delivering such capabilities to the sectors and communities that can most benefit from them must remain an urgent priority.

Complexity made simple – Mark Keenan, CEO, Real Wireless

Real Wireless is ten years old. For ten years we have been at the leading edge of our industry, growing our business and establishing ourselves as the world’s leading wireless experts.

And in that decade, wireless technology, services and demand have undergone a transformation few predicted. Indeed, even the language has moved on. Virtualization, mobile edge computing and the Cloud, for example, were hardly common currency in 2006. Similarly, network densification, IoT and even 5G were viewed as longer-term concerns. Even old favourites like backhaul, Wi-Fi and last-mile solutions have evolved well beyond the versions we knew a decade ago.

We are only too aware that wireless technology has not stood still. And yet our fundamental mission hasn’t changed. We look at what our clients want. We examine what is out there or on the way in terms of technology, techniques and services. And we help our clients to save money and make cost-effective, future-proof investments.

Asked to position our offer, we can say Real Wireless bridges the gap between the wireless industry and wireless users. The technology evolves, the underlying architectures become more elaborate, the orchestration, installation, regulation and overall management of networks and systems become more demanding, but we help to make all of it work for our clients. That was true when we started and it’s still true today.

Of course, behind the simple concept of ‘making it work’ is no shortage of modelling tools, location-specific solutions and, of course expertise and commitment. We are focused solely on wireless and we are independent; we judge all wireless technologies and solutions on their merits and relevance to a given need. We can supply experts in everything from simulation modelling and mobile security to radio propagation and economic and regulatory issues. Small cells, cellular planning, spectrum policy, antennas, core networks… our experts can tackle all of these — and more. And we continually ensure that our pool of expertise is expanded to meet both change and growing demand.

Ensuring reliable wireless coverage for Wembley Stadium — one of our very first projects — illustrates this approach well. It’s not about installing a system and walking away. It’s about managing change. Over the past ten years, stadium coverage needs have given way to capacity requirements. Smartphone-equipped users are the norm, not the privileged few. Hardware and software need to be assessed as new options become available. Emergency services will soon move from TETRA to LTE. All of this has been managed without disrupting the smooth running of the client’s communications offering.

As it has over the past ten years, wireless communications will get even more complex as Real Wireless enters its second decade. But we will always aim to offer expertise and experience that can manage that complexity, never forgetting that the end goal will still be to do something very simple: to make wireless work for our clients.

Wi-Fi first? – William Webb, Regulatory and Spectrum Expert, Real Wireless

In developing wireless communications over the past three decades we have been chasing ever-faster speeds and ever higher capacity. This has delivered astonishing benefits for all of us that have truly transformed our lives. But the speed of data connection is now becoming less important than consistency – the ability to be connected at a reasonable speed everywhere. Rather than aiming for ever-faster connections it suggests that delivering enhanced coverage in a number of known problematic locations such as trains and rural areas would generate greater value for the economy and be preferred by most consumers. These problems have persisted throughout the broadband era but the technology and inclination to tackle them is now emerging.

In most of the locations where connectivity is difficult Wi-Fi is a better solution than cellular, with the exception of coverage in rural areas. Wi-Fi provision on trains enables more productive journeys. Wi-Fi in buildings increasingly enables voice calling as well as data access. Wi-Fi can also provide very high capacity in stadium and the 60GHz ‘Wi-Gig’ variant can enable Gbits/s links within rooms. This reflects a trend that has been underway for years towards increasing use and reliance on Wi-Fi to the extent that it is now the preferred method of communication for most. Our cellphones typically send around 85% of their data traffic over Wi-Fi and our tablets and laptops typically 100%. That we live in a ‘Wi-Fi first’ world is only slowly being realized across the industry – developing policies for such a world is becoming increasingly important for governments and regulators.

The end result – connectivity everywhere – would be one well worth striving for. A great road system is no longer one with unlimited maximum speed, but one with minimal congestion and excellent safety. A great communications system is one available everywhere, all the time with minimal congestion and at low cost. I am excited by the prospects that we might now be able to step off the ‘data rate’ escalator and focus on delivering a solution that meets everyone’s needs wherever they are.

One of my particular skills is in the regulation of radio spectrum and wireless communications – I spent seven years at Ofcom and have written two books on this topic. Our current regulatory framework devotes much attention to licensed spectrum for cellular and competition policies amongst mobile operators. It is time to reassess that framework, with increased focus on spectrum for Wi-Fi and with a changed competition policy that recognizes the world of mobile communications and the interests of the citizen-consumer will look quite different five years from now.

SON, your time has come – Julie Bradford, Managing Consultant

While self-organizing network (SON) technology might not inspire the same column inches as the hype surrounding 5G, for example, there are signs it’s finally starting to come back into the limelight.  In fact, I was recently part of a London conference wholly devoted to the subject, where a series of operator presentations left delegates in no doubt about the value and challenges of SON and automation both in today’s networks and on the path to 5G.

With 5G often described as a ‘network of networks’, such dense HetNets can be characterized as ‘multi-x environments’ – multi-technology, multi-domain, multi-spectrum, multi-operator and multi-vendor. As Small Cell Forum recently noted, these networks ‘must be able to automate the reconfiguration of [their] operation to deliver assured service quality across the entire network, and flexible enough to accommodate changing user needs, business goals and subscriber behaviours.’ And in networks comprising macrocells, large numbers of urban, enterprise and residential small cells, Wi-Fi access points, distributed radios and DAS antennas, it’s clear that optimization will be literally impossible without advanced SON at the heart of such automation.

But it’s not just the growing diversity of access mechanisms driving demand for sophisticated automation. The variety and complexity of services that are delivered by both network operators and over-the-top providers imply a huge range of customer experience expectations and network performance. Clearly, voice services over LTE are sensitive to packet loss, gamers struggle with latency, movies-on-the-go demand reliable buffering and so on; this is before the tsunami of 5G offerings ranging from augmented reality and the tactile internet, to sensor monitoring and first responder connectivity.

In addition, a number of conference speakers in London discussed virtualization and SDN in 5G networks.  Here there must surely be an opportunity for SON to help dynamically manage the ‘network slices’ of spectrum, sites, equipment, inter site transmissions etc. to deliver the right combination of services in the right place at the right time.   Many mentioned the idea of SON having to move from being re-active to pro-active as we move forwards on this path.

But in all this there is a danger that we are getting ahead of ourselves. At Real Wireless, part of our job is provide independent guidance around current investment decisions.  Many of the presenters at the conference were encouragingly operators who are actively using SON in their networks today.  However, much of the focus of real deployments was on automating radio planning and maintenance of sites which is still the tip of the iceberg in terms of what SON could achieve.  Also issues around interoperability, scalability and taking SON beyond the RAN appeared to remain a concern for operators, indicating that there is still plenty of work to be done to realize the full potential of SON.

Caroline Gabriel’s recent operator study concluded that automation and SON become entirely critical to the HetNet business case at a density level of about 10 cells per macro/50 cells per square km point, though SON was also considered highly desirable beyond three cells per macro/15 per square km. As network densification becomes more pressing, the case for reliable and interoperable SON will become increasingly urgent.

Virtual infrastructure, real value – Simon Fletcher, CTO, Real Wireless

The C in C-RAN is all about Centralisation, isn’t it? Well, not necessarily. When it more commonly stands for Cloud we can better understand how C-RAN can transform the value creation possibilities of wireless infrastructure, in ways that enable operators, in particular, to feel that their networks are more than just pipes.

This is an urgent consideration. Political and economic groupings (such as the EU) are predictably excited by tapping the potential of future communications services and its place in the evolving digital economy. This digital economy, in case we need reminding, is centred round things like – well, you name it: real-time data, delivery tracking, wearables, preventative healthcare, smart meters and the (potentially) vast savings they can produce and income they can generate.

The so-called eInfrastructure behind this super-smart, super-connected digital future is important; 5G should be part of this eInfrastructure. At the moment, the view of many political institutions seems to be that 5G is simply an incremental infrastructure play beyond today’s 4G and Wi-Fi. That is, it’s just more cost efficient connectivity and not much use if it isn’t transporting something of value – which is where true economic potential lies.

I would like to suggest a different view – that there is value in 5G infrastructure over and above its transport function. Explicitly positioning RAN as part of the Cloud business eco-system – where C-RAN means Cloud RAN – transforms 5G eInfrastructure into something that can add value in and of itself.

‘Cloudification’, then, brings new business models into the conceptual domain – but not just through new services. Cloud-RAN is a platform for creation of value within the pipe. With Cloud in play in the network and at the edge, new business innovations become obtainable. Such as mobile network multi-tenancy to support on-demand allocation of networking, storage and compute resources in a fully multi-tenant environment. Or multi-service- and context-aware adaptation of network functions to support a variety of services and corresponding QoE/QoS requirements.

Another way to put this is that dedicated networks contained in slices can meet the need of different services and tenants, be they service quality and performance, service-specific functionality, or adaptation to available infrastructure.

Potential new revenue drivers like these simply require innovative thinking and – as slicing and multi-tenancy imply – cooperation, which will be needed to open interfaces, enable control and user plane splits. It may also be necessary to embrace deferring capex for opex. Nevertheless, with a concerted change of mindset, there will be real intrinsic value in 5G infrastructure where there was – at least according to some people – none before.

Capitalizing on the indoor coverage opportunity – Oliver Bosshard, Managing Consultant

Something like 80% of mobile data traffic originates indoors. Contrast this with only 5% of RAN capex allocated to indoor coverage. At the same time, less than 2% of commercial and public buildings are currently covered by dedicated indoor solutions.

Unsurprisingly, in the vast majority of commercial buildings, mobile coverage remains weak or non-existent. This is clearly a challenge for both enterprises and operators, as many of the latter feel the business case for DAS or small cell deployment fails to stack up. Why should they invest more for diminishing returns? At the same time, most enterprises will argue it’s up to the carrier to provide reliable coverage and capacity inside and out.

From a carrier perspective, the problem is that, while mobile data usage continues to rise, ARPU growth rates have stalled and, in some markets, started to fall in absolute terms. The divergence of growing data consumption and diminishing ARPU is starkly reflected in network investment. MNOs in markets with low ARPU invest less in their network compared to markets with higher ARPU (e.g., the APRU in the US is more than double the ARPU of the UK).

But out in the world of enterprise, the natives are getting restless. For landlords and businesses, the need of good indoor connectivity is becoming increasingly urgent. Residential tenants see connectivity as essential as any other utility, and for most businesses ubiquitous connectivity is mission critical. Which is why many enterprises are willing if not always able to invest in their own infrastructure. There are plenty of examples of enterprises willing to pay for services that operators simply don’t have the processes or the sales team to deliver.

At Real Wireless, we have seen increasing interest in both venue-owned distributed antenna systems (DAS), and the use of small cells as dedicated indoor coverage solutions. From a technology perspective, small cells would appear well placed to solve the challenge of indoor coverage for most businesses. However, with the growing adoption of ‘bring your own device’ policies in the enterprise, multi-operator capability is also emerging as a crucial requirement. For many businesses, there’s no point installing a network that can only be used by subscribers associated one particular operator.

For larger-scale deployments, like stadiums, DAS remains the solution of choice. However, large DAS systems are expensive, and labor-intensive to deploy, requiring long installation periods and specialist expertise. Currently, the cost base makes DAS only suitable for very large premises such as stadiums, while its limitations in terms of cost elasticity and scalability mean its addressable market is unlikely to reach down into any but the largest companies or premises. Looking ahead a little, however, it’s worth noting that, with the advent of virtualization, the distinction between small cell and DAS technologies will become increasingly blurred.

So far, however, few mobile operators seem to have been enthusiastic about deploying small cells as a means of encouraging enterprise take up or reducing churn. This is partly because, in spite of the relative maturity of small cell technology, operators have been slow to incorporate them into their enterprise packages and many seem to believe that the business case does not stack up. There is undoubtedly an opportunity here for someone to come up with an innovative solution or a disruptive new approach to drive new revenues with indoor small cells. This, however, involves the recognition of new values chains and the elaboration of commonly understood commercial templates to distribute deployment costs across specific groups of stakeholders.

For example, when deploying a network to ensure coverage and capacity in a new shopping mall, it is clearly in the interests of the operator, the mall owner, the retailers and retail app firms to ensure ubiquitous coverage. So it’s clearly in the interests of all these businesses to share the costs of deployment. However, it’s equally true that the manner in which these costs are distributed is not something that should be reinvented for each and every shopping mall. This means abandoning outmoded business models, and more collaboration, partnership and revenue-sharing.

Ultimately indoor coverage is not something operators can afford to sideline for much longer. Absence of indoor coverage is already having a huge commercial impact and, like we have said, the enterprise (and consumers) are getting restless.

Living in harmony with 5G – Mike Goddard, International Spectrum Policy Advisor

Expectations for 5G from governments and regional groupings, like the EU and CEPT in Europe, are very high. On the operator side, frontrunners are starting to trial, possible applications are being assessed and as far as Korea and Japan are concerned, it‘s almost here — or will be in time for the winter Olympics in PyeongChang in 2018 and the summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.

However, the process of spectrum allocation for 5G isn’t going to be quite so much in the public eye – but it will be essential. Finding enough spectrum (probably across more than one range in every country) able to deliver the fast broadband, coverage, capacity and IoT services that, at the very least, 5G is expected to offer is a big ask given the different spectrum priorities and decision-making processes that prevail in so many countries and regions.

To make all of this happen, widely harmonized spectrum, freedom to repurpose existing spectrum and affordable access to the necessary amount of spectrum are all ideals that the operator community (and many other interested parties) will be encouraging governments and regulatory authorities to offer. After all, even compared to 3G and 4G, the investment in 5G infrastructure is going to be staggering — and then services have to be rolled out and the whole thing monetised. Put bluntly, without a coherent, and relatively benevolent spectrum policy across as many regions as possible why should anyone invest?

That’s why Real Wireless is calling for alignments. An alignment on spectrum prices and allocation processes. An alignment on bands that can and should be used. And an alignment that crosses borders: national approaches to regulatory policy that lay the groundwork for collaboration at a global level.

But this is more than just a utopian call for international understanding. Real Wireless has experience of both spectrum management and 5G. We are, for example, involved in assessing the socio-economic benefits of 5G by way of the European NORMA project. We have also worked with regulatory bodies on policy and have a strong track record in assessing spectrum needs and how to meet them. We know how difficult it is to accomplish this and how long it can take. We also know that, as far as 5G is concerned, it’s going to be a more complex challenge than any that have gone before.

This could be the most fundamental change to wireless since it went digital, creating a ‘hyper-connected’ society, supporting everything from connected machinery in factories and automated vehicles to on-demand video — and much more.

The challenge is to deliver widespread coverage and support all use cases — even some we haven’t thought of yet — that could build new and great industries and enhance existing ones with benefits to all. The more coherent, thoughtful and, it has to be said, agile, the international approach to spectrum allocation is the sooner we will be able to enjoy those benefits.

Back to backhaul – Julius Robson, Wireless Technology Consultant

The small cell backhaul has been a bit quiet recently… but now it’s back with a vengeance, as operators demand affordable gigabit backhaul to meet next generation capacity requirements everywhere.

The principle market for small cell backhaul is urban densification. Initially we saw relatively small deployments as operators used them tactically as a precision tool to fix isolated problem areas in their network. Operators are now urgently scaling up deployments to become part of their densification strategy. And this is where backhaul is needed. According to consultants IHS Technology, backhaul connections for urban small cells are set to multiply by 20 times between 2016 and 2020, driving cumulative spending of $6.4bn in the same period.

At a recent Small Cell Forum webinar, operators didn’t mince words when describing the challenges they’re facing, and how they’d like things to change. There were calls to unify planning which differs from city to city, let alone country to country. At the same time, there is great interest in using higher frequency spectrum for 5G access. However, this places uncertainty around the microwave and millimeter wave backhaul solutions which currently use these bands.

As the road to 5G beckons, the essential role of automation in deploying and operating dense HetNets becomes increasingly evident. SON today is largely RAN centric – automating cell ID and neighbor list allocations. In future, operators need to automate all aspects of end to end service delivery, including backhaul. Operators need small cells and backhaul to be plug, play and forget to avoid high and unexpected O&M costs.

Virtualization of small cells is also changing the game for backhaul. The Small Cell Forum has now published its nFAPI interface which enables C-RAN benefits over packet Ethernet type connections, unlike CPRI based C-RAN which generally needs fiber. Other so-called ‘functional splits’ of the small cell are possible, each providing a different tradeoff between the benefits of centralization and the required backhaul performance. In the longer term, virtualized functions can be moved around according to transport performance, allowing operators to squeeze the most from their deployed assets. This is why the need for guidelines on transport performance requirements for different splits is an early priority.

So after the hype and the disillusionment, small cell backhaul is once again re-asserting its place as an essential ingredient in the future HetNet.

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.