In the past three years, we have seen large swings of sentiments around the next generation mobile technologies that we label, conveniently and perhaps simplistically, as 5G. Indeed, misplaced and mostly erroneous statements have contributed to sceptical investors’ attitude as they come to terms with the actual 5G added value to customers.
Amongst many misconceptions, I would like to remind two which are common to many debates concerning the transition between LTE advanced and 5G. For starters, there is a wrong assumption that 5G requires massive site densifications, derived from the specific situation in the U.S. where operators are deploying in high spectrum bands (millimetre waves at 26-28 GHz with short cell radius). In Europe and Asia, 5G deployment will be leveraging, to a very large extent, the existing cell towers, equipped with massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technologies in the mid-band (~3.5 GHz), interworking with existing LTE bands to deliver the needed capacity to cope with expected traffic growth.
Perhaps more relevant to business customers is the wrong perception that fully-fledged and widely available 5G services have to see the light before considering mobile technologies as business platforms. In reality, 5G technologies will be anchored on high-quality 4G/LTE networks, while core network services and platforms already share a common development path. Without dwelling in technicalities, the technology transformation currently happening in telecom networks, centred around virtualisation, cloudification, and automation provides the flexibility to adapt to customers’ business processes, in the same way software-defined network adapts to the applications and workloads in an on-demand, scalable fashion and at the point of fruition.
"Mobile networks, as they evolve towards 5G, open new opportunities to bring immersive video to the mainstream where consumers are themselves part and master of their own content experience"
Business customers demand mobile networks to deliver consistently and predictably, with low and controlled latency, sustained bandwidth, ensuring security and privacy. Dependable mobile technologies are necessary ingredients to the transition towards automated factories where wireless connections replace wired links without compromising in reliability, hence removing barriers to wider adoptions of autonomous machines to drive productivity, reduce waste, and optimise production cycles.
Mobile networks deployments in industrial compounds can be designed for purpose. The degree of separation between public and private networks spans from physical (different spectrum bands) to virtual/logic (with classes of services) on same spectrum resources, according to needs. By leveraging control plane and user plane separation, communication and transaction flows can be routed towards local enterprise applications that orchestrate the factory processes, so to ensure end-to-end low latency, data privacy for the protection of industrial secrets, and system security in a controlled environment.
Logistics ports and harbours are undergoing radical transformation towards automation and digital services. Harbours are complex ecosystems operating at clock-work, characterised by multitude of services in a dynamic environment populated by a wide range of operating machines, vehicles, and logistics assets in need of reliable, predictable low latency and sustained bandwidth to interact with different applications orchestrating main business processes of the harbour, under tied control, and security. Logistic ports are like industrial compounds, yet different given the need to accommodate multiple stakeholders, customers, service providers, and customs.
Mobile network deployments in harbours and logistic ports can make use of end-to-end service specialisation (or network slices), available through APIs (application programming interfaces) towards the IT systems of the harbour. In addition, leveraging virtualised nature of latest generation mobile core networks, it is possible to decentralise mobile functions dealing with access control and users’ capability management to best address the communication and transactions’ flow of the harbour ecosystem.
By embracing mobile technologies, vertical industries develop new uses cases for consumers and businesses which cross realities and shift timelines. Mobile networks, as they evolve towards 5G, open new opportunities to bring immersive video to the mainstream where consumers are themselves part and master of their own content experience. High-end games on mobiles (cloud gaming) will make consoles things of the past while latest evolutions in lens make possible to put the virtual image in the same plane as the real, see-through, image, lowering the inconvenient to adoption of mixed reality applications where digital experience blend with physical movements. Besides high bandwidth and low latency, these experiences require compute power closer to the edge of the network. ‘Networks as computing platforms’ means applications can be designed to seamlessly scale across devices, edge, and cloud according to needs.
At the onset of 5G, mobile technologies will reach new boundaries of performance to become dependable business platforms, employing cloud-native technologies which are service-oriented. While the path to technology maturity gains traction and so the general interest around sustained high bandwidth, low latency, ultra-reliable mobile networks, businesses and telecoms can work together to build minimum viable products that address concrete industrial needs, that are scalable and replicable so to make the next wave of mobile investment a true enabler of the competitiveness of industries, for the medium-long term.