The advent of 5G has been accompanied, unsurprisingly, by plenty of hype. A newly published study by the European Commission has attempted to establish the likely socio-economic benefits of the new technology as well as some of the hurdles it must overcome.
There are three stated aims of 5G connectivity.
First, it promises to end the digital divide by enabling enhanced mobile broadband; at a minimum 50Mbps everywhere. (Yes, everywhere. That includes the Black Valley in Co Kerry.) It also promises a thousand-fold increase in mobile network capacity, spelling an end to "Message Failed" notifications in Croke Park on All-Ireland Sunday.
The second aim is to make 5G the critical enabler of the Internet of Things revolution by supporting connectivity for up to seven trillion devices worldwide.
Thirdly, and possibly most revolutionary, it aims to provide both ultra reliable communications (a 99.999 per cent service-up time) and ultra low latency communications (round trip times of less than 1 millisecond).
While the average consumer’s interest might be focused on the prospect of downloading a 90 minute movie in mere seconds, the impact of a step-change like ultra reliability is significant for many critical services that current mobile networks can’t touch, such as life-dependent medical devices or control systems for electricity grids.
In order to assess how these bold claims for 5G would benefit Europe, the EC study focused in particular on the impact for users in the healthcare, transport, automotive and utilities sectors.
The direct benefit to those sectors was conservatively estimated at €63.5 billion per annum by 2025 across the EU. These benefits range from improving outcomes for patients with conditions such as diabetes and chronic respiratory disease through the use of connected medical devices, to the development of intelligent transport systems capable of reducing traffic congestion.
Beyond this, second-order benefits accruing across four environments – smart workplaces, smart cities, smart homes and rural communities – amounted to a further €50.6 billion per annum.
Rural communities look to benefit from ubiquitous access to cloud-based enterprise services for SMEs and increased social mobility through access to further education via online courses.
Introducing 5G technologies to the market will not be without challenges. Providing life-critical services to the healthcare community, for instance, will require strict delineation of liability. Who’s to blame when a connected insulin pump goes down? The network operators? The device manufacturer? The doctor who prescribed it?
Assuming that appropriate contractual agreements can be made, the availability of sufficient amounts of spectrum to meet the needs of 5G may become the crux. There simply isn’t enough spectrum to allow three or four separate mobile network operators attempt to service the needs of both existing consumers and the vast demands of connected devices enabled by 5G.
Regulators like the sound of three or four separate operators; they are seen as some kind of guarantor of competition. But this is too simplistic an approach for the needs of future networks; rather than promote competition it has the potential to stifle network innovation.
Operators will have to pool their licensed spectrum holdings and share their infrastructure if the industry is to deliver for some of the more lucrative sectors.
There will be some early quick fixes: regulators will be able to release limited new spectrum licenses for 5G and some new unlicensed bands are also possible. But there’s no avoiding the reality that there is not much spectrum left to be licensed at the frequencies operators currently use - and for which their current networks are built to support.
That's why 5G has also been focusing on developing radios for the much higher frequencies such as the millimetre wave bands above 6GHz. Qualcomm has recently announced a new radio modem that will deliver 5Gbps at 28GHz.
Radios operating at those higher frequencies will require many more base stations than the existing 4G networks have in place, particularly in urban areas. These new basestations will require significant investment. The current antipathy to sharing means that these potential early technology wins will be too costly to roll out.
This problem could be solved by a combination of adequate regulation and willing operators. Indeed, the current problem of poor mobile broadband coverage in Ireland might have been avoided if operators had been willing to engage in more intensive co-investment in shared infrastructure over the last decade.
Operators don't invest heavily in new equipment because of the steadily diminishing returns of providing simple data services which are monetised by over-the-top players – principally the app providers on the Android and iOS platforms; Comreg's 2016 Q2 Market Key Data Report notes that Western European countries saw a 1.2 per cent decline in data ARPUs in Q1. Mobile network operators have little incentive to provide better connectivity for the shareholders of SnapChat, Facebook or Pokémon Go.
5G would allow operators to change their market proposition, enabling them to move from passive data pipe providers to agile innovators of bespoke solutions for an array of sectors.
By proactively engaging with the needs of verticals and by creating irresistible 5G-enabled service hooks such as high reliability with ultra low latency and edge-based AR/VR content servers – operators could position themselves to attract new industries through their networks, rather than the current model which allows a free ride over the top.
The critical 5G question is whether operators will grasp the sharing nettle.
Dr Tim Forde is director of research innovation at CONNECT, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications, at Trinity College Dublin. He co-authored the European Commission's report on the benefits of 5G which may be downloaded from connectcentre.ie