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Article · 16 Mar 2021

Forging ahead with 5G: what to expect

5G is springing into life up and down all over the world, making the leap from concept to fully operational use cases. So, how close are we to achieving the vision of a 5G-enabled world?

Andy Rowland
Head of digital manufacturing

The most visible sign of progress to the average consumer is bandwidth growth, offering mobile speeds significantly higher than 4G can achieve.

Understandably, this means most people think 5G is just about mobile bandwidth and, yes, a lot of early use cases stemmed from that. But bandwidth is only the beginning — more benefits will hit the public consciousness over the next few years. 

The ITU, the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies, has a vision that goes far beyond data speeds. It expects 5G to connect people, things, machines, data, applications, transport systems and cities in smart networked communication environments. The ITU believes 5G has massive potential in three main areas: carrying a huge amount of data much faster, reliably connecting an extremely large number of devices, and processing very high volumes of data with minimal delay.

Working with 3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project), the ITU is focusing on bringing together organisations that develop telecommunications standard to develop key 5G use cases — some requiring ultra-low latency, and others needing ultra-high reliability or a high density of devices / IoT sensors in small areas with very low power consumption.

It may be that 5G will unlock possibilities we’ve yet to dream up. It definitely has the potential. What we know today is that technology in a 5G world will create sophisticated and flexible services that are reliable and have ultra-low latency. And, based on these services, we’ll be able to create more bespoke services through network slicing, Edge computing and other capabilities that are only just emerging.

Myth busting: what we know about the world of 5G so far

First up, 5G coming along doesn’t mean the end of 4G. In fact, 4G networks will play an important role supporting 5G, and 5G won’t replace 4G within the next ten years. To start with at least, 5G devices will stay connected to both 4G and 5G at the same time to guarantee connectivity and increase overall network capacity. 

5G isn’t set to replace wi-fi, either. Wi-fi technology (including Wi-Fi 6) will continue to play an important role for indoor data networks, thanks to cost, ease of deployment and widespread device support.

But wi-fi won’t be the only option for the indoor environment. Although early 5G deployments have only been outdoors, adding indoor 5G solutions will boost the type of use cases we’ll see over the next couple of years. 5G is already growing in indoor scenarios. For example, its high levels of reliability and performance make it ideal for industrial automation.

In fact, the network of the future will deliver the best experience using a range of access technology types (fixed, mobile or wi-fi), matched to the needs of the customer — all supported from a smart hybrid core. Imagine a device that’s connected to the enterprise’s wi-fi and the 5G network at the same time. This simultaneous connection will mean the user won’t notice a dip in connection as they leave the building, and they move from wi-fi to 5G.

The focus so far has been on a national approach to development, so it’s easy to see why some believe 5G will end up as a shared enterprise. However, not all 5G activity will run across public networks. We expect private networks to flourish where a business needs dedicated resources, bespoke performance characteristics and / or needs to maintain data sovereignty by keeping its data and applications within a specified environment.

And not all computing for applications using 5G will take part at the core. Some applications using a 5G network could be deployed at the edge, close to where the data is created, to keep latencies low. This will drive a surge in edge computing, deployed either into a customer’s site or hosted in the operator’s network at a regional data centre.

Driving core 5G development

When it comes to predicting 5G’s growth, the ITU expects it’ll develop in three key areas: enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine type communications, and ultra-reliable and low-latency communications. We agree, and plan to play a leading role in building a flexible and future-proofed architecture capable of supporting current 5G plans as they happen, as well as developments yet to be thought of. 

Currently, our 5G activity is at the cutting-edge of three main areas:

  1. enhanced mobile broadband and high-definition video
  2. mission-critical applications
  3. massive machine-to-machine communications for industry automation

Here’s a snapshot of how we’re making 5G a reality.

5G in action: remote healthcare

We’re currently trialling a real-time service based on 5G that connects hospital clinicians with ambulance crews. This advance in ambulance-based remote healthcare will cut the number of trips made to hospital and, more importantly, improve patient care, making sure patients are transferred to the right hospital and speeding up triage and admission on arrival.

Recently our project’s connected ambulance carried out the first remote ultrasound over public 5G using the EE 5G network. A high-definition stereoscopic camera in the ambulance transmits a live 180-degree feed and the paramedic’s augmented reality headset has a camera that can send close-up images of the patient. Using a VR headset, the hospital clinician can see this real-time data, including ultrasound images, vital sign monitoring and medical records. The clinician also sends instructions to a robotic (haptic) glove worn by the paramedic, help them to control the ultrasound probe in the ambulance.

In the future, our project plans to extend this service to send any type of information from the ambulance, including information from sensors and other monitoring devices such as ECGs. It’ll also boost the clinician’s ability to send instructions directly to the paramedic’s augmented reality headset.

5G in action: smart ports

We started our work creating smart ports by pioneering low-latency, high-bandwidth, and high-reliability services around Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR). With AR, we’re increasing the speed of repair and reducing its costs. Operatives can carry out guided maintenance and operations with the remote support of experts who can guide them on unfamiliar equipment or configurations. The headsets also give the wearer access to up-to-date and accurate helpful information. With VR, we’re creating more realistic training environments for situations where it’s too hazardous to train people with physical simulations. Staff can play out worst-case scenarios safely, helping ports to increase the safety and efficiency of cargo-handling operations.

We’re also transforming how ports monitor activity with a network of sensors placed on containers, equipment and facilities. These sensors deliver real-time monitoring and analysis of motion and environmental data from large parts of the port area, so the port authority can track the movement of cargo around the port. Plus, 5G connectivity ups port security with ultra-HD video monitoring and analytics that track containers, trucks and other objects across the site.

5G in action: manufacturing

In manufacturing, we’re introducing ‘smart factory’ innovations that just wouldn’t be possible without 5G’s low latency. Now, factories can centralise their monitoring, with low latency control loops that can shut down CNC machines in milliseconds to prevent damage in production. Real-time monitoring capabilities are also changing how factories handle maintenance. High density wireless networks support IoT sensors that measure factors like temperature, humidity and vibration, flagging up when maintenance is needed so work can be scheduled when it’ll be least disruptive.

We’re also using 5G-supported ultra-HD video to detect problems with machinery. The system uses changes in the motion of machines to instantly detect faults and triggers, providing undistorted slow-motion video for the engineer to review. This speeds up fault diagnosis and makes equipment more effective.

AR headsets are hard at work in this environment, too. Just as in smart ports, they help field service engineers to follow complex instructions without having to refer to tablets, computers or smartphones and they share guidance from remote experts. This has really come into its own during the coronavirus pandemic, as a way to bring expertise to the production floor during social distancing and travel limitations. AR is also becoming an effective way to overcome skills shortages. Take the ‘big crew change’ that the oil and gas sector is experiencing; AR lets a small group of older experts with skills in legacy equipment to share expertise with younger recruits working on site.

5G in action: autonomous vehicles

5G is vital to the development of autonomous vehicles, speeding up the transfer of data at the same time as providing highly reliable, low-latency communications — and even helping with vehicle positioning. These vehicles already exist; we provided the 5G network to support a live demonstration at the Royal Welsh Show.

Autonomous vehicles rely on 5G to augment LIDAR and other sensors that help it understand its environment, providing low latency notifications of hazards that are beyond the line of sight. In a 5G environment, vehicle-to-vehicle communication using video camera images will let one vehicle ‘see through’ others to understand what’s ahead. This highly reliable vehicle-to-vehicle communication will mean transport can platoon — where a group of vehicles travel very closely together, safely at high speed.

The coronavirus pandemic as a 5G accelerator

The pandemic is likely to drive adoption of private networks, as industries search for ways to improve automation, and to collect and monitor more data for remote management with the use of cameras and sensors, with proactive maintenance and virtual support across multiple sites. 

Businesses can run private 4G / 5G networks alongside existing networks without the need to run wires and cables, meaning less disruption to production time. In manufacturing, they’re considering alternatives when it comes to things like assembly line production, ones that mean you don’t have to rip out and replace production lines, only reconfigure and reprogram machines and robots. These are highly flexible, digitally networked automated production systems that are Industry 4.0 compatible, with driverless transport systems – where only the fabric of the build is fixed and everything else is portable.

The pressure is on to find new ways to collaborate that don’t involve people meeting in person.  In manufacturing, for example, businesses can’t fly in expert teams to fix or maintain production lines. In situations like these, private networks are proving to be a better option than wi-fi for supporting collaboration between sites, because they offer dedicated coverage, stability and quality of service. There’s been a distinct uptake in the use of augmented reality headsets to help share expertise and 5G’s lower latency delivers a better AR experience, with fewer dropouts and less nausea.

A 5G world depends on collaboration

It’s only through collaboration and co-innovation that our 5G world will reach its potential.

We’ll need a collaborative ecosystem to help 5G make the leap from individual use cases to becoming an essential part of daily life. Network operators, device vendors, core network vendors, application developers, politicians, cloud providers, academia, industry bodies, as well as government and regulators all need to work to a strategic roadmap that fits their individual areas of expertise together like a jigsaw puzzle. Collaboration will be vital to prevent developmental silos emerging and to guard against technological dead ends developing.

Given the scale and impact of 5G technologies, change management will be essential for both the general public and the business community, and we’re already playing our part. We’re part of key industry bodies, including 3GPP, BBF, ETSI and the GSMA, working on initiatives to develop and follow 5G’s strategic roadmap. We’re also working on a range of EU collaborative projects driving 5G use cases forward, and we’re active in UK initiatives including projects with DCMS and the 5G Innovation Centre.

Delivering the network that underpins 5G development

We’re proud that our BT / EE network has won the best 4G network for six years in a row and that in early 5G benchmarking we’re once again ahead of the competition for coverage and speed. As of February 2021, our 5G coverage was available in 125 UK cities and towns and we have an ongoing roll-out programme planned for 2021 and beyond. Our 5G network currently offers download speeds five to six times higher than 4G and upload speeds two times higher. Our 5G latency is lower than 4G and will continue to improve as 5G technology and networks evolve further. The 5G peak speeds we offer will also continue to increase as more spectrum is released and deployed and as device capabilities continue to develop.

Looking to the future

5G innovation will bring many changes to our society and economy, only some of which we can predict now. Others will emerge further down the line, so we’ve prioritised flexibility to make sure we’re ready to support whatever direction 5G takes with a network and architecture that’s ready for the future. 

If you’d like to talk through what 5G can mean for your business, please get in touch with your account manager. We’re here to help.

Discover how your business can exploit technology and innovation both now and in the future by downloading our ‘Winning the innovation race’ brochure.

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