5G: fuelling digital transformation today – or tomorrow?

Digital World 2021 Highlights September

The second ITU Digital World 2021 Forum session, ably moderated by ITU’s Diana Tomimura, brought together an insightful panel from across government, industry and international organizations to explore current status and role of 5G in the digital transformation. Discussions spanned the rollout of 5G, current and future use cases, challenges and concerns, the use of 5G in conjunction with other key technologies and how it can bridge the digital divide.

Extending 5G: US and African Telecommunication Union

With the pandemic forcing so many of us to take a digital leap to remain connected, government priorities in the United States include helping populations be equipped for a more tech-enabled future, where individuals can stay connected to vital services such as work, health and more. Jessica Rosenworcel, Acting Chairwoman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), explained how the US is pursuing a “100% broadband” policy, with a three-pronged approach. This includes setting up a broadband data taskforce to measure where services exist, pinpointing on maps where service is and is not available, so that “we can direct resources to the right places,” she explained. Secondly, a focus on the mid-band spectrum for 5G, as “these are the airwaves with the right propagation and capacity.” Finally, the FCC has launched a US$9bn 5G fund, helping extend the reach of the technology into rural areas. “Better data, more focus on mid-band spectrum and more funding are the ticket to making sure 5G new technologies and broadband reach everyone, everywhere”, she summed up.

For African Telecommunication Union Secretary General, John Omo, harnessing the potential of 5G has been a key part of the African Union’s COVID-19 action plan. This has comprised a process of drafting recommendations, review by African Union member states, validation, and adoption. Highlights include the definition of 5G roadmaps, plans to harmonize 5G spectrum, as well as agreement on fiscal measures to reduce taxation of broadband devices. Plans will also tackle the policy and regulatory framework to encourage infrastructure roll out and deployment, including making 5G spectrum available for local and shared licences and addressing the spectrum needs of verticals – a theme echoed by many panellists. He voiced hopes that these recommendations will be accepted by all stakeholders on the continent and that “force of reason will be the reason for their widespread adoption.”

Cross-industry views

Sanjay Kaul, President, Asia Pacific & Japan, Cisco Systems outlined what elements make up the internet of the future- or Internet 2.0 – framework, a 5G architecture framework that allows the cost to be on a level so that everyone can have access to the internet and enjoy it like a commodity. The architecture combines “efficiency in optics, convergence, introducing cloud native architectures and bringing in security into every piece,” he explained.

A key value in 5G will come from its applications, according to Andreas Mueller, Chief Expert Communication Technologies for the IoT, Robert Bosch. For him, 5G is a highly flexible and constantly evolving innovation platform, which has the potential to become a digital backbone for transformation in industry verticals. Many verticals are late entrants to the 5G discussion table, and have had to catch up quickly, to leverage its potential. Nevertheless, the 5G ecosystem is one that is growing from scratch and, going forward, should include “devices and solutions that are optimized for the respective verticals”, taking into account the different pace of their innovation cycles. While there are many real use cases, verticals need to identify business cases that give positive return on investments.

5G challenges and concerns

From security or deployment, to concerns over radiofrequency electromagnetic exposure or even bridging the gap between expectations and reality, the onset of 5G brings with it a host of challenges for its ecosystem to collectively address. To tackle health and safety concerns, ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection) provides a set of guidelines for administrations to adopt and manufacturers to follow, explained ICNIRP Chair, Rodney Croft. These are designed to protect against radio frequency electromagnetic exposure and if adhered to, will ensure that 5G poses no harm.

As 5G is further deployed, connections multiply and the IoT expands, so the cybersecurity challenges increase too. Defences need to constantly evolve and improve. The FCC is taking direct action in areas such as keeping untrusted equipment out of the supply chain and accelerating deployment of OpenRAN (open Radio Access Network) to increase innovation and the diversification of networks in the future. “We need to think about security in all our work,” explained Rosenworcel.

New technology always brings with it inflated expectations. “5G is just the start of the evolution, not the completed product,” Seizo Onoe, Chief Standardization Strategy Officer of NTT Corp and Fellow of NTT DOCOMO, told delegates, and capability needs to be enhanced around the performance of real networks. Deepening understanding and finding new use cases is key, and NTT works with a number of partners, including governments, to help achieve this.

Funding the deployment of the networks, and affordability of user devices and services are major challenges, according to Omo. Relying on a technology such as 5G alone to close gaps is a “tricky issue.” Wide gaps in income levels between urban and rural areas are issues policy makers need to consider, as well as ensuring that networks cover both rural areas and densely populated ones.

Making 5G accessible and affordable to a broader audience, moving beyond smartphones, is a priority for Qualcomm, who is working with customers, countries and telcos to address specific use cases and applications, including within verticals. Although 5G is an “evolution,” it is off to a fast start and will continue very quickly, driving big and small business, explained ST Liew, Vice President, Qualcomm Technologies.

Use cases

In the Republic of Korea, where mobile operators have been rolling out 5G since 2018, the main use case for 5G is video, plus VR and XR services, according to Jemin Chung, Task Force Leader, Institute of Convergence Technology, KT Corporation. Although initial use does not appear so different to 4G, a closer examination shows that 5G subscribers are consuming three times more data than 4G ones, switching WiFi for 5G at homes, he explained. A use case with significant potential- cited by many panellists- is private networks. Here, 5G can deliver enhanced performance to enterprises such as large factories using network slicing, increasing the automation process, and even remote islands, where it can provide healthcare and other applications.

5G also has a wide set of use cases in Japan, from agriculture to manufacturing and factories, and is not only limited in urban areas, explained Onoe. Japan’s approach towards assigning spectrum through beauty contexts – instead of auctions – help boost network investment.   The government has introduced a new index that measures infrastructure deployment rate instead of population coverage, which encourages nationwide coverage.

To leapfrog or not?

Although no one country has “leapfrogged” straight to 5G, there have been cases, such as Jio in India, of going straight to 4G without going via 2G or 3G. Nevertheless, according to Samsung Electronics Head of Sales and Marketing Group, Southeast Asia, Ayeong Im, a variety of approaches tend to be deployed, according to country and operator, including shutting down 2G and then 3G networks and refarming spectrum. A key concern for operators is also around architecture. Operators that have invested heavily in 4G networks and spectrum may introduce non- standalone access (NSA) through its existing network, by connecting 5G radios to the 4G core. On the other hand, operators building a network from the scratch, can opt for standalone access (SA) network that connects 5G radios directly to the 5G core. NSA has the advantage of being easier to connect, but SA can allow for more advanced technology- such as enabling smart factories. Often, operators will use NSA first to get into the architecture, then move into SA, explained Im.

5G in collaboration with other technologies

Interaction or collaboration with other technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), Wifi6, FWA (Fixed Wireless Access) or OpenRAN can enhance the potential of 5G.

AI, for example; can improve the performance of 5G. Chung gave the example of how real-time data analytics are optimizing network resources and performance, enabling them to be assigned as necessary to meet user requirements, with AI controlling change automatically in real time. “As AI technology advances, there will be more and more opportunities to leverage them to manage our network intelligently,” he summed up.

Private 5G networks will be key for verticals going forward. They can bring 5G into the existing environment of verticals, but still ensure performance requirements, security constraints and differing needs for flexibility are met, as no one factory environment is the same. A key enabler for this, according to Mueller, will be changes in spectrum regulations, giving enterprises different licenses for spectrum- already underway in Germany, UK and Japan. Using private networks in combination with OpenRAN solutions can also lead to a higher level of flexibility and tailoring. “This is where we are heading to,” he concluded.

Qualcomm has been using FWA built on 5G, to enable operators to take ultra-high speed broadband- comparable to fiber optics- to places where fixed broadband is not available. FWA will also “lay the groundwork for a whole new service offering.” In terms of extending access, Liew sees FWA as “one of many very powerful tools for closing the gap, solving the problems we are facing today.”

“Wi-Fi6 and 5G are complementary technologies” according to Cisco’s Kaul, they enable a seamlessly connected move from one environment to another, through home, work and travel, as well as having key roles to play in areas such as smart manufacturing. Wrapping up, he reminded delegates of the 2 billion people across the world who are unable to afford or benefit from broadband. Technologies such as Wi-Fi6 and 5G, plus AI and virtualization, will come together to create an affordable internet, he said.

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