The need for speed: is Ireland ready for 5G - the next big thing in cellular technology?
Mobile operators are testing the fifth generation of systems which will deliver gigabit speeds as fast as fibre broadband that can be used for self-driving cars and surgery. Adrian Weckler reports
Is Ireland ready for 5G? In recent weeks, Ireland's two big mobile operators have begun discussing the next big step in cellular technology. Vodafone showed off a 5G trial, measuring speeds in gigabits rather than megabits, with Ericsson in Dublin, while Three has begun talking about a possible rollout from 2019.
But how close are these operators to rolling out something that's a step up from 4G?
And what will people actually use it for?
So far, 5G has proven to be a more nebulous concept than 4G or 3G before it. That's because while the earlier standards were primarily about improving mobile internet speeds (to 1Mbs with 3G and then to 100Mbs on 4G Plus at present), the new technology is about issues such as reliability and latency as much as another speed bump.
Self-driving cars, for example, are expected to require much quicker response times between cells to be reliable from a regulatory point of view. But other than that, there aren't many existing mobile consumer or business services that can take advantage of speeds of 1,000Mbs, let alone 15,000Mbs.
So what will 5G networks actually bring that's different to 4G?
And is this set to be just another service for cities, with sparse coverage in regional areas?
"The real 5G happens in a different radio interface, which won't happen before 2020, I'd say," said ComReg Chairman Gerry Fahy. "You might find that 5G is about things other than handsets, which might go for a long time on 4G Plus Plus Plus."
Fahy has a point. To date, there are no handsets capable of taking advantage of 5G speeds. Several flagship models can now handle up to 1,000Mbs, but not at the frequencies (such as 3.6Mhz) expected to be used by 5G.
While a technical milestone was reached in December by the international Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) on how 5G will be built, other bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) have yet to fully recognise a single 5G standard.
That means that handset manufacturers have held off on building phones until the standards become clearer. Irish operators say that it's likely to start with equipment such as routers. "We expect to be doing 5G trials around Q4 of this year with a view to commercially launching some services in 2019," said a spokeswoman for Three Ireland.
"From a device perspective, routers will come first, with availability during the second half of 2019. The first early handset devices are expected in the second half of 2019. However the majority will be available from 2020."
Three's main rival, Vodafone Ireland, went one step further. Two weeks ago, it joined Ericsson for a test in Dublin that achieved speeds of up to 15Gbs (15,000Mbs) with a latency of less than five milliseconds.
The operator also tested 'pre-standard 5G' on Vodafone's recently acquired 3.6GHz spectrum, which is expected to be used for 5G services when 5G is launched. "There seems to be a consensus that we will see 5G in Ireland from 2020 onwards," said John Griffin, head of Ericsson Ireland. In the interim period there will be trials and proofs of concept but the entire ecosystem needed for full launch will only be ready in that time frame. We know that certain other countries will have limited 5G launches in 2019."
Griffin said that speeds are likely to reach 1,000Mbs, currently only available on fibre-to-the-building systems. "Based on the spectrum that has been allocated in Ireland for 5G, which is 3.6Ghz, and the amount of bandwidth per operator, which is up to 105Mhz, then gigabit speeds are possible in theory," he said.
"In Trinity College on February 7, we demonstrated 1.7Gbps [1,700Mbs] on a 5G trial system using the 5G spectrum available in Ireland.
"We also demonstrated millimetre wavelength 5G which delivered 15Gbps, but this will not be available for many years and is for short-range high-capacity solutions.
"In reality, with properly dimensioned and loaded mobile networks, we expect several hundreds of Mbps to be possible."
Vodafone's event showed off some expected consumer applications ranging from augmented reality to high speed, low latency gaming.
"This first successful trial of pre-standard 5G is an essential step forward," said Madalina Suceveanu, chief technology officer of Vodafone Ireland. "As our network evolves toward 5G, it will become even faster and more resilient, will have significantly lower latency and will allow a huge number of devices to connect simultaneously."
But it's not as simple as waving a wand with some new equipment to switch 5G on. Existing networks will require heavy artillery backup in the form of fibre.
"The most obvious demand is that all mobile network sites will need fibre to transfer all this data out onto the internet," said Ericsson boss John Griffin. "The core networks of tomorrow will also be dimensioned to make best use of another major advantage of 5G, which is latency. Moving the core network functions closer to the subscriber will allow very low latency to facilitate many new services, that are not possible over today's mobile networks. We have used remote surgery as an example, where a surgeon in one location operating remotely on a patient in many thousands of kilometres away."
So what will else will a 5G network be used for? Sensors are one expected use. In general, most industrial use-cases cite streaming of 4K or 8K video content in future. While this might seem like high-definition overkill now, increases in screen resolution on mobile devices over the coming months may soon necessitate an uptake of bandwidth needed to feed video that matches the screen's capability.
Autonomous vehicles are widely expected to be one of the main beneficiaries of 5G networks. Earlier this month, the European operator Telefonica conducted "the world's first proof of concept" for a 5G-based "vehicle-to-everything" system. According to the companies, the test used ultra-low latency technology that will be required for self-driving cars to be licensed by regulatory authorities.
Other uses for 5G include smart cities (traffic controls, public transportation, utilities), health (tracking devices) and even the gradual replacement of current radio or television bandwidth. Because of the speed and latency of 5G, 'mega-cloud' services may also emerge. If access speed to an online service is always instant, why do we need hard drives anymore?
Meanwhile, agriculture is also being tagged as an industry ripe to take advantage of 5G connectivity because of machinery automation, including tractors, crop-spreaders and drones.
But will 5G make it out to typical farmland scenarios? This is set to be one of the hot-button topics of the new technology in Ireland.
Existing 3G and 4G licences were only required to cover up to 90pc of the population, with no geographical coverage requirement.
That has meant that as long as the operators cover Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford and a handful of other urban centres, they only need cover other areas according to their own preferences.
Last year, Communications Minister Denis Naughten indicated that the next mobile licences to come through the Government would have a stipulation that 100pc geographic coverage might be required. To do this would make Ireland the first country in Europe to specify such a complete geographical basis of coverage."Based on our dispersed population, we need to do it this way," Naughten told this reporter. But will this really happen?
ComReg's Fahy has received this in a lukewarm fashion. While not denying its possibility, Fahy recently suggested that it might be difficult to fashion a mobile licence in this format, because operators may not take up a licence that obligates them to spend millions on equipment for large, relatively uninhabited territories.
"We're looking at this and other issues," he recently told me. "But 100pc geographic coverage is probably one of those things that, if it's to be delivered, needs some support from government. It's a bit like the National Broadband Plan. There's a level of coverage that's commercially deliverable and then beyond that it's society's job to close that gap.
"Even if you gave away the licence for nothing, what would companies do to the extent that it is commercially possible?"
This is one of the main reasons that 5G is not being talked about as a realistic alternative to the National Broadband Plan, which aims to connect 540,000 rural homes and businesses to fibre speeds. In practice, 5G speeds may match or exceed current fibre speeds. But if the bulk of the rollout occurs in cities and towns, it's fairly useless to those rural citizens currently stuck on sub-par phone line or aerial broadband.
Then there is the question of timing and licensing. Few see any significant 5G services taking shape in Ireland for at least two years and possibly longer.
But will a new set of licences be required?
"The 3.6Ghz spectrum we recently licensed is usable for mobile broadband and rural broadband but can be used for 5G as well," said Fahy.
And what about auctions? Can we expect similar auctions to those that took place for 3G and 4G? "We don't make those decisions until we arrive at that point of time," said Fahy. "But that wouldn't be an unreasonable speculation to make."
What Ireland’s three main operators are doing about 5G
Ireland’s biggest operator has run its first 5G test in Dublin with Ericsson, demonstrating speeds of up to 15Gbs (15,000Mbs). It has no active timeline on rollout of the technology. Like other operators, it has a chunk of 3.6Mhz spectrum which can be used for 5G services.
“We expect to be doing 5G trials around Q4 of this year with a view to commercially launching some services in 2019,” said a spokeswoman. “From a device perspective, routers will come first, with availability during the second half of 2019. The first early handset devices are expected in the second half of 2019. We were the only mobile operator to secure national optimum 100MHz spectrum in last year’s auction.”
3. Eir (Meteor)
“Eir continues to assess the evolution of 5G technology and we secured national 5G spectrum in 2017,” said a spokeswoman. “We plan to develop 5G network capability in the next 24 months, which is a similar timeline to other operators in the market. Eir secured nationwide spectrum in the 3.6Ghz spectrum auction in 2017. This band has been identified as one of the early 5G technology bands.”