How 5G wireless networks will change Europe

24 Oct 2016 | News
To realise the great promise of 5G technologies, Europe needs to step up its game in terms of policy, investment and education

The technology for the deployment of fifth generation 5G wireless networks is in hand, but as is so often the case in Europe, the money, the policy and the regulatory framework are missing, according to experts speaking at a Science|Business conference in Brussels last week.

“Technology is ahead of the regulators and the policy,” Rahim Tafazzoli, Director of the Institute of Communications Systems and of the 5G Innovation Centre at Surrey University, told delegates.

The EU is putting in €700 million, to be matched by another €700 billion from the private sector, to fund development of 5G. “That is €1.4 billion allocated and it shows the EU’s commitment,” said Tafazzoli.  But other regions will rollout their networks earlier than Europe, because countries including Japan, China, and South Korea, “have more money to implement it faster,” Tafazzoli said.

The European Commission has called for the rollout of 5G in at least one city or town in every member state by 2020. This initial deployment is intended to accelerate implementation of the technology across Europe.

However, it is unclear how much money the region’s telecoms operators are prepared to invest in the new network infrastructure. In July 2016, 17 leading telecoms operators, equipment vendors and satellite operators sent an open letter to the European Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, Günther Oettinger, saying the speed of development and deployment of 5G will depend on the regulatory environment and the availability of spectrum and public funding. They called for fewer restrictions on the deployment of base stations and flexible net neutrality rules to enable specialised services to be delivered using dedicated connectivity.

5G is crucial to enabling the EU’s economy to adapt to imminent technological changes across all industries, Tafazzoli said. It will be the backbone of the Internet of Things (IoT), connecting up to one million devices per square kilometre.

But 5G offers much more than mind-boggling connectivity and download speeds. While 4G is about communications between people, the next generation of wireless communications will have a far broader societal and economic impact, enabling connected, driverless cars, smart manufacturing, smart energy grids, smart cities, and digital healthcare. “The world has changed and over the next 30 years it will change even more,” said Tafazzoli.

To take one example, 5G together with big data analytics, will help transform the energy sector, Philippe Tanguy, Vice President for R&D at the oil company Total, told the conference.  The transition to low-carbon energy, “will be supported by a strong digital revolution,” he said. Rapid data analysis and transmission will make the energy system more flexible, and utility companies will be able to manage energy delivery in a smarter way, better matching supply with the demand.

However, robust cybersecurity will be essential to the reliability of 5G-enabled IoT, and Tanguy warned that policies and regulations in this field are not yet fit for purpose. “We do not want to be the Internet of Threats or the Insecurity of Things,” he said.

In common with 4G, there will be continued development of 5G after its initial commercial deployment. To get the best out of applications including virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence will require further, “breakthroughs in [5G] theory and engineering,” said Chen Lifang, senior vice president of Chinese telecoms company Huawei, which is pouring millions into Surrey University’s 5G innovation centre.

Data flood

Other technological challenges lie ahead, not least because the roll out of 5G and the IoT will generate, “an information flood,” said Walter Weigel, Vice President of Huawei’s European Research Institute, which is based in Leuven, Belgium. Individual users, big and small companies, governments, and billions of IoT sensors will produce and collect unprecedented volumes of data, raising concerns about the limitations of current data storage and data processing technologies. Even if chipset manufacturers keep doubling transistor density every two years, “Moore’s law will not help us to keep the pace,” Weigel said.

The torrent of data unleashed by 5G also raises the question of how individuals will respond to its collection and analysis. Tafazzoli argued that more research money needs to go towards studying data privacy issues and educating people of both the benefits and dangers of data sharing. “Research investment is needed in this direction,” he said.

Training and education is part of the picture, but in addition governments must start thinking about how to regulate new interactions between citizens and industries enabled by 5G and IoT, Tafazzoli believes. Utility companies will have to work together with regulators to harmonise regulations and policy. “It’s not happening yet,” said Tafazzoli. In his view, getting the policy right will require more public debate.

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