Remember back in 2010 when those Kevin Bacon adverts were around?
It seemed like the whole world went a bit mad for a new technology called 4G.
4G held big promises about speed and reliability, and it seemed to be the pathway for the future. The trouble was, it was a bit of a white elephant. It was expensive, only available in 4G cities and even then could you access it on the latest devices. Perhaps that’s a little harsh, but its certainly fair to say that it had a shaky start.
Nevertheless it was an upgrade, and companies who invested heavily were able to market it well and reap huge rewards – enough to make astronomical amounts of money. EE for instance, after pushing this technology hard, grew so fast that they have just been bought out by BT for £12.5 Billion.
(EE was started in 2010 as a 50:50 joint venture between Deutsche Telekom and Orange S.A. (formerly France Télécom) through the merger of their respective T-Mobile and Orange businesses in the UK. The suggested joint revenue was originally set at £7.7Bn with an expected £600-800 Million required for integration. EE itself launched on on 22nd August 2012.)
What’s the big deal about 5G Technology?
5G, from the outside, looks to have much of the same issues as 4G… however appearances can be deceptive. In this particular case appearances are plain WRONG. 5G is not an upgrade, 5G is the ONLY upgrade which matters over the past 30 years worth of communications.
At least potentially…
5G offers a scaled increase thousands of times faster than 4G.
While it promises truly remarkable upgrades to speed (something which will be covered in a moment), it cannot be accessed on existing mobile devices or be integrated effectively with current telecoms network infrastructure (hardware). In order to even use it, companies will first have to purchase the right to use the frequency in particular areas, then build the infrastructure and finally sell the devices which allow them to connect.
(Note: It seems that the government is also looking to spend in this area with their infrastructure upgrade plans for 2020, most likely to keep them ahead in transport (TFL / Heathrow) and Intelligence Services (MI5)).
The BAD News
The bad news is that 5G is not around the corner. It will take at least 3 years just to get everything in place, if all goes according to plan. It will also be prohibitively expensive for many people and is only likely to be available in large cities. To be clear, in order to get to a place where 5G is even possible there are a whole host of things which need to change and be agreed. For instance there hasn’t even been a standard set of what exactly 5G is – how fast its capable of going in the real-world, how many devices the bandwidth can serve in unison, the amount of delay between connections which can be expected and any other limitations or roadbumps along the way.
Are there drawbacks to wireless devices operating at such high frequencies?
Generally, as you move to higher frequencies, transmission range gets shorter—hundreds of meters rather than kilometers. And signals are unable to penetrate walls easily. Some hardware components, such as analog-to-digital converters, might also be expensive. We are still learning about millimeter wave and are testing its capabilities. Another challenge is if the transmitter and the receiver don’t have a line-of-site connection, there is a lot of attenuation [loss] in the signal. We’re conducting performance analyses to better understand the communication reliability and plan to publish a paper in the fall at the IEEE Vehicular Technology Conference in Boston.
Will Millimeter Waves Maximize 5G Wireless?, The Scientific American
Networks, then, must become less about large towers and much more about lots of wireless routers working with line of site. This means significant changes to how wireless signals will work indoors and creating business and civic environments that effectively make the most of this unknown technology. In short, 5G is an administrative pain in the butt!
The GOOD News
The good news is that 5G is bloody amazing. We are not talking about merely a jump, we are talking about a quantum leap. 5G speeds go all the way upto 10Gbps. Oh yes, that’s super HD Films downloaded in less than half a second. That’s a world made for the Internet of Things, where all devices communicate with each other instantly. No need to schedule updates or patches. Its all instant. That’s 100% coverage for all devices, 90% reduction in energy usage, 1 ms round-trip max latency and 99.99999% availability. 5G is the infrastructure which the future sits on.
The Auction for Who Controls the Future
Right now there is a cap on who can control the airwaves in the UK in order to stop monopolies that hurt consumers.
Ofcom is responsible for deciding who gets what, but are, in many ways, at the mercy of the large players. They have initially set out rules for 2020 saying that no supplier can own more than 37% of bandwidth (including for 5G services).
Three (owned by Hong Kong conglomerate CK Hutchinson) says this should be reduced to 30%, while 02 has demanded that there should be a 35% cap on total frequency ownership. EE, following their BT Merger, currently control 45% of the mobile spectrum but this will drop below 35% when the new bandwidths come into play. In their current situation, this would mean they would only be able to bid for a small part of the immediately available 5G mobile spectrum – something they are decidedly unhappy about.
Vodafone, the final competitor, who currently own 28% of the UK mobile airwaves, have backed Ofcom. They have suggested a ‘Safeguard’ of the 5G network bandwidths to ensure that EE do not dominate and push other players out of the new market. Meanwhile it seems likely that EE will push for a court ruling to overturn the cap and allow them to play a bigger role in the early investment of 5G technology.
Update: The Great 5G Hold-up
Ofcom, bombarded by the legal complaints from all sides, have decided to delay the auction of new bandwidths into the UK market. Originally planned for October 2017, they have now removed a set date with the next court hearing on the topic now set for December 2017.
A Spokesperson for Ofcom said:
“It is very regrettable that the auction will now be delayed by this litigation, which will harm consumers, businesses and ultimately the UK economy. We hope this matter can be resolved promptly, so that we can release the spectrum as soon as possible.”
This has created its own furore with companies such as EE eager to pounce on the new technology and make the UK a ‘World-leader’ in 5G technology. Indeed, the CEO of EE Marc Allera has pushed for a further and more expansive sale of the 5G bandwidth:
“We believe there is now an opportunity for Ofcom to restructure the auction of spectrum for 5G, bringing together 3.4-3.6GHz, 3.6-3.8GHz and 700MHz into one, single auction that will allow far more effective planning for all operators and result in a stronger 5G platform for the UK,” wrote Allera. “Ofcom has focused too narrowly on pushing through an auction of 3.4GHz, which will hinder operators’ ability to make clear investment decisions.”
To resolve the immediate state of affairs he has also suggested that the final sale of the 4G bandwidth which is immediately usable should go on without their involvement, presumably in a move to create some good favour in the market and give them the chance to open up 5G. This move has largely seen good support in the market by the heads of the other businesses including o2 CEO Mark Evans, Vodaphone CEO Nick Jeffery and Three CEO David Dyson.
The truth is more likely that Ofcom have decided to actively work against companies who choose litigation as their first line of defence, showing them that they cannot be pushed into decisions by legal teams. The problem of cap setting is further exacerbated by the case of o2 and Three, who’s merger was halted by the EU in 2016, for the reason that they needed more smaller players in the consumer market.
The past few years have left the whole UK telecoms industry in a bit of a tailspin, especially since they allowed BT and EE to merge into a company which undoubtedly has dominance over the UK Mobile market and networks. Considering that the low band networks and phone traffic from older companies is in sharp decline, the 5G network sets up the new game for giant telecoms companies who are finding themselves in a tight marketplace and hungry for a new challenge.
For now it seems we will have to wait until December to find a clear resolution for the 5G marketplace. In light of Ofcoms delay vs litigation tactic, pressure to put infrastructure in place from both the public and private sector (to meet 2020 targets) will increase, and force the hand of one side or another. It also seems relevant that EE’s public focus on 5G and boosting the UK’s trading potential worldwide may play well politically after Brexit and influence the chain of events to come.