Rolling out 5G in the UK: What’s involved?

Arqiva is proud to have played a significant part in the successful roll-out of 4G in the UK. Our infrastructure, including around 8,000 active licensed sites, has helped to deliver faster wireless connectivity to tens of millions of mobile users across the country.

We need to look at how our infrastructure operates and how it will support the new technology

We need to look at how our infrastructure operates and how it will support the new technology

With more than 52 million active subscriptions and 89 per cent geographic 4G coverage in towns and cities, the industry has achieved a lot, but there’s no time to stand still.

Behind the scenes both here and across the wider telecoms sector, work is underway to ensure the next big steps happen as smoothly and quickly as possible. 5G is well and truly on the horizon, and it promises to be the biggest development in connectivity yet.

Big things are happening

Each step between the first generation of mobile connectivity and where we are today - 4G - has brought its own significant changes. Since the basic analogue voice services of the 1980s, we’ve seen huge and continuous improvements in coverage and capacity, the introduction of new digital generations, and of course, the advent and rise of mobile internet.

Even with all this progress in mind, the revolution we expect from 5G is unprecedented. Our own trial has already demonstrated data speeds in excess of 1Gbps, along with latency levels of sub 5ms. This, amongst other use cases, will allow huge improvements in Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) connectivity, creating huge opportunities for businesses as well as consumers.

Realising 5G’s potential will take a lot of work. The improvements needed in infrastructure, technology and even bureaucracy really are relative to the transformation we’re preparing to make. Below are some of the biggest considerations.

More infrastructure

With speeds and data consumption both poised to rise dramatically, we need to expand and update our infrastructure to cope for the future.

Flexibility will be key too. Rather than rely only on large roadside towers, colossal demand across busy cities and suburban areas will require the installation of hundreds of thousands of outdoor small cells – tiny mobile sites mounted to lampposts and other street furniture. Deploying these at street level will require investment and collaboration throughout the sector, involving ourselves, asset owners and mobile network operators.

Massive MIMO deployment

The transition to 5G will require more than just an increase in asset numbers – we need to look at how our infrastructure operates and how it will support the new technology. Behind the scenes we are exploring new ways to provide the reliable, superfast connectivity our customers expect.

We are already seeing ‘Standard MIMO’ in its various derivatives being deployed to deliver wireless services and this trend will accelerate as we head through the 4G evolution and into 5G. However, ‘Massive MIMO’ – or multiple-input/multiple output, where hundreds or thousands of antennas and terminals are used to achieve even greater efficiency and throughput - will be a key enabler of an enhanced data experience. It will be a big consideration in the next stage of 4G and 5G network evolution and deployment, and will have major consequences for passive infrastructure such as existing tower and rooftop locations.

New commercial models

With such seismic change expected from 5G, providers will need to reassess how they manage, sell and deliver their services. Network slicing will provide the opportunity to offer services with very different features to user groups with unique needs all via a common set of infrastructure.

An example service may be 5G FWA, which can provide a greatly enhanced service compared to todays fixed home broadband technologies and complement future fibre to the premise deployments. Such a service could result in new market entrants as well as providing an alternative approach for established players via changing the time to market dynamic for ultrafast broadband and allowing commercial, model innovation.

Dark fibre comes into this too. Dark fibre is a critical component of 4G evolution and will have an even greater importance in 5G network deployment. Denser networks with greater coordination will be needed to support the huge growth in mobile data, increased M2M activity and launch of new services. For 5G to thrive, dark fibre will need to be available to the mobile industry from a range of players at competitive prices.

Too much red tape?

Our sector has always been heavily impacted by regulation, both from industry bodies and the Government. While most of the rules serve their purpose, we need the Government and the regulator to continue to focus on policy which will enable successful 5G deployment.

The Government has shown that it understands, and is willing to help with, the practical issues facing operators in rolling out mobile. Not only has it taken major steps in removing some of the planning restrictions for small cells, it has also set up a broadband barrier removal team to look at all of the practical challenges in a systematic way.  To unlock the potential of 5G, this team will need to look at issues relating to permits, business rates and further changes to planning.  As mentioned already, outdoor small cell technology will be crucial to realising 5G’s potential, and practical changes will be needed to enable the industry to deliver it.

Spectrum is another major consideration. Ofcom has worked with its continental counterparts to determine the three bands that they believe will be initially important to enable 5G in Europe: 700 MHz, 3.4-3.8 GHz, and 24.25-27.5 GHz. However, our customers will need more if we’re looking at the evolution of 5G throughout the 2020s. Success here may lie in high-frequency millimetre-wave spectrum – i.e. bands around and above 30GHz, including the 28GHz utilised for Arqiva’s FWA trial with Samsung – especially in high-demand areas like major cities.

A bright but busy future

5G might be on the horizon but there’s still a lot of work to do for Arqiva and the wider telecoms industry. It’s important to remember that 2020, although cited by so many as the estimated arrival date, isn’t the pinnacle of this new connectivity era – it’s just the start.

The technologies we’re trialling and implementing now will certainly get things off to a flying start, but like 4G before it, 5G will continue evolving long into the future – much to the benefit of consumers and businesses across the UK.