Business Technology

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Irish operators gearing up for 5G - but speeds and prices yet to be set

What's happening with the next-generation mobile networks here? With ultra-fast mobile data promised, Adrian Weckler looks at some of the key issues facing a rollout around the country

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Max Gasparoni, Vodafone Ireland's interim chief technology officer

What exactly are Irish operators planning for 5G services?

The only commercial activity being planned by Irish operators is wireless broadband. Eir and Vodafone are trialling rural wireless broadband access using the technology, although both operators say that this would likely be a limited geographical service.

In urban areas and big Irish towns, there are no confirmed plans for uses outside what is already available with 4G.

That leaves us with the same speculative-use cases generally assumed for 5G.

This includes autonomous vehicles (at least five to 10 years off), more use of robots, medical activities (from personal health sensors to intricate remote surgery processes) and greater overall connectivity among everyday things around us.

Otherwise, Irish operators are waiting to see what demand will be like and from which quarters it will come.

"It's still too early," says Max Gasparoni, Vodafone Ireland's interim chief technology officer. "Some companies have expressed interest, but it's too early to disclose anything."

Nova UCD, which is the Dublin university's centre for startups and early-stage ventures, has entered into an agreement with Vodafone to get 10 projects up and running on the telco's Dublin dockland 5G test network.

But a spokesman said that it doesn't yet know what kind of startups might emerge from it, or even the general areas of activity. (Applications for the scheme are being sought.)

"We have an expectation that when we roll out the network, it will be mostly fixed-wireless applications such as dongles," said a spokesman for Eir, which has announced the start of its 5G rollout for later this year. "But we'll have the network ready and see what people use it for."

Abroad, there are some indicators. In Korea, 5G test networks are being used to allow high-bandwidth video-streaming to and from fast-moving objects such as cars and trains. This can be a problem for 4G networks.

The emerging autonomous vehicle industry looks set to be somewhat reliant on 5G technology too, when it reaches mass market scale. The idea is that cars, vans and lorries will be in uninterrupted contact with other things around them, such as traffic lights or even other vehicles.

But for that to be safe, the system's 'latency' needs to be lightning fast and unerringly reliable - way quicker than the half-second it might take using today's mobile networks and far more dependable, too.

"5G will be a key technology for that," says Vodafone's Gasparoni, who agreed that a "five-to-10-year" time frame looked likely for adoption in that context. "The low latency is very important there. But that's a major transformational programme. We're already quite big in the automotive industry and we'll follow the customers."

Will 5G services cost more?

None of the operators will comment openly on this at this stage, partly because they don't yet know what exact services will emerge outside fixed wireless broadband provision. But in the US, Verizon has announced that its 5G services in Chicago and Minneapolis will cost $10 extra a month for the higher speeds.

5G already has a labelling problem.

One of the early complications facing 5G is who gets to call their service a 5G service.

Most people understand the term to mean the next iteration of mobile connectivity, with all that this brings.

But the first Irish telecoms company to market the term has no mobile service at all. Imagine Communications, which provides broadband between masts and aerials on rooftops in rural areas, made a major announcement about plans to expand its network.

It is calling the service '5G' as it was one of the telecoms operators to purchase spectrum from the Communications Regulator in the recent commercial release of 3.6Ghz.

To be fair to Imagine, there is no rule to say that it can't market its services as 5G. Indeed, fixed wireless broadband is included in some definitions. But it's pretty certain that most of us will overwhelmingly associate 5G with cellular services rather than fixed wireless ones.

A similar issue arose with the in 2007 when Digiweb, a telecoms company that sells broadband and phone packages, tried to market a wireless service as '4G'. At the time, 4G mobile services were years off (they did not launch until 2013) but there was marketing buzz to be gained.

And in the US, telecoms giant AT&T recently faced ridicule for putting a '5Ge' reception logo on some phones connecting to its network. The operator branded its non-5G network as '5G Evolution' in an early bid to grab some marketing juice.

"There's going to be a little bit of confusion between one tech and the other," says Max Gasparoni. "There will be companies which call their services 5G, possibly using 5G-capable spectrum for services. In our case, it's commercial mobile 5G."

Will all of Ireland get 5G coverage?

Another issue likely to confuse people is coverage requirements. Although the spectrum used to facilitate 5G services was recently sold to operators by ComReg, it did not come with the usual coverage requirements that 3G and 4G licences attracted. As such, there is no obligation - other than commercial and competitive ones - for operators to roll out any kinds of new services.

Should 5G start to look like a modern necessity in five or 10 years (for autonomous vehicles, computers or mobile devices), it may turn out to be even more urban-centric than today's 4G networks.

But this isn't a given, senior executives say.

"That's not necessarily the case," says Gasparoni. "It genuinely depends on the frequencies available. The minute they are, operators will start using them. It's very important to have the widest possible availability. You want to offer the best to customers."

Gasparoni says that coverage distribution will also depend on future spectrum auctions, a "crucial enabler" for wider coverage.

How much faster will 5G be?

Regardless of what other uses 5G is put to, everyone agrees that connectivity speeds to devices will increase substantially.

On paper, 5G is expected to deliver up to 10 gigabits per second, the equivalent of 10,000 megabits per second. By comparison, the current maximum speed on Eir's 'eFibre' broadband product is 0.1 gigabits per second (or 100Mbs). But, at present, there are very few common use cases for such speeds.

Moreover, most phones and tablets can only connect at up to 1Gbs, a tenth of 5G's putative maximum.

For example, none of Apple's iPhones are being sold as 5G-compliant devices. However, two of Samsung's recently launched phones do come with some 5G compatibility. Both its Galaxy Fold and S10 5G models will offer faster speeds and extra network connectivity. Both, however, will cost substantially more than non-5G handsets.

"We initially expect to typically see services of around 500 or 600 megabits per second," said an Eir spokesman.

Vodafone's Gasparoni agrees.

"For early 5G services, you will see several hundred megabits," he says. "For the likes of 10 gigabits, we'll probably need to wait a few more years, maybe as millimetre wave comes on stream more."

Will it need more infrastructure?

Operators say that for the most part, rolling out 5G will be a process of swapping in new equipment on existing mobile sites. In cities, more dense infrastructure may be needed over time.

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