By Andile Ngcaba, Duncan Pie & Pramod Venkatesh
“6G will come sooner than previous cycles..”
In recent years 5G has moved from concept to real deployments across the world. In the past, introducing new Telco networks has always been more expensive. However, 5G has beaten this trend and made the entire deployment much more cost-effective, allowing for offering at the same rate as the previous generation. The cost implication will be a significant incentive for enterprises to migrate to 5G and for consumers to adopt 5G.
The uptake of 5G with faster bandwidth and reliability is driving further digitisation of industries. These developments are essential for entire nations to prosper, particularly in Africa where digitisation has been marred by the high costs of bandwidth and lack of reliability for the last mile connectivity.
Technology generation evolution
5G is a new global wireless generation of mobile networks. The first generation mobile network (1G) was introduced in the 1970s supporting voice communication at a speed of up to 2.4 kbps. It took over 40 years to move from 1G to 5G. However, moving into the future of 6G and beyond, the pace of change is destined to be faster. Today 5G is perceived to be a game-changer, as it aims to combine all enterprise-grade networks to enable applications to run on mobile systems. This new generation mobile network enables a unique structure that is designed to connect virtually everyone and everything, including machines, objects and devices. 5G is meant to deliver higher multi-Gbps peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, more reliability, massive network capacity, increased availability and consistent user experience. Given that not all applications are the same, 5G consists of different types of network characteristics for a variety of applications.
5G is designed to offer more connectivity than was ever available before. 5G has been designed with the extended capacity to enable next-generation user experiences, empower new deployment models and deliver new services. 5G will expand the mobile ecosystem that impacts every industry facilitating; safer transportation, remote healthcare, precision agriculture, digitised logistics and more. Therefore, 5G will drive global economic growth, support a wide range of industries and impact associated goods and services. The 5G European observatory has designed an international scoreboard to assess 5G deployment in Europe. According to this scoreboard, the entire EU intends on launching 5G commercially by the end of 2020.
5G development requirements are expanding beyond the traditional mobile networking players to include industries like the automotive industry and to support future unknown services. 5G is designed to deliver higher peak data rates, to provide much more network capacity, deliver much lower latency for immediate response and drive scale towards fixed investments. 5G will be the first network generation to enable the convergence of enterprise networking with consumer networking through the concept of slicing that yields a better return on investment compared to older technologies. All the slices implemented virtually utilising the same physical infrastructure are created to overlay using software-defined networking (SDN).
The Telecom Infra Project (TIP) has created commercially viable products and solutions that can be deployed globally for 5G networks. TIP’s products and services also work across all network layers, allowing the group to address more market needs.
5G will create many opportunities for different sectors of the economy, given that the skillset and technology stack required to build a dedicated 5G network is not yet readily available. It is also important to point out that because 5G is a relatively new technology, it will require a complete digital reorganisation to deliver and associated cost to deploy.
Enterprise 5G Architecture
In Germany, the telecommunications regulator recently handed over seventy-four 5G licences in the 3.7–3.8 GHz frequency range to public and private sector applicants to build 5G networks. Germany has opted to award many grants to create a broader scope for innovation. Companies that were awarded licences range from systems integrators, mobile network operators, agricultural companies, car manufactures like VW, Audi and BMW, airlines like Lufthansa, start-ups and SMMEs. This is evidence that 5G networks will not be built solely by mobile network operators, as was the case with the generations before. The network slicing nature of 5G allows it to be leveraged by several sectors. 5G has several business cases beyond telecommunications, and it is crucial that as Africa, we view it in this regard.
Vodafone in Germany and Lufthansa have launched a private 5G network. This network has been deployed in an airport hangar in Hamburg as a standalone network. Lufthansa intends on using this hangar for virtual and augmented reality to visualise 3D design data of cabin equipment. This is the first use case Lufthansa has deployed, and they intend to deploy more. Germany has opted for a private 5G network model for a number of its licensees. This will enable them to design solutions based on their individual sector needs. The network slicing model of 5G will allow a number of these sector-specific networks.
Private 5G Networks
Private 5G networks for enterprise will enable previously unfeasible applications, allowing for industrial-scale internet-of-things networks in factories, warehouses, ports and more.
Private 5G can deliver ultra-low latency and incredibly high bandwidth connections supporting Cloud and artificial intelligence-driven applications to cater to the exploding number of sensors and endpoints. Security can be higher, affording network owners a degree of control that may not be possible on a public network. The private network may even run on a dedicated spectrum, reducing the risk of variable service levels due to usage by third parties. From 5G Private Networks, you can connect to Hyperscale Cloud providers through AWS Direct Connect, Azure ExpressRoute or Google Interconnect. This is the new architecture that will be highly secured to the Cloud.
5G slices are a network configuration that allows multiple networks (virtualised and independent) to be created on top of standard physical infrastructure. This configuration is the quintessential 5G architecture. Each “slice” or portion of the network can be allocated based on the specific needs of the application, use case or customer. Network slicing in 5G facilitates the efficient reassignment of resources from one virtual network slice to another.
Although the list of 5G applications seems limitless, most cases fit into one of three categories:
1. Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)
2. Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC)
3. Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (uRRLC)
Accelerating 5G Deployments
While the previous generations of deployments relied on OEM vendors, 5G is software-driven, with radio being run on OpenRAN and the rest of the protocol stack and the necessary Base station application now capable of running as containers or virtual machines on COTS x86 hardware. This has reduced the overall cost of deployment of a base station. With 5G and the advent of millimetre wavelength, there is a requirement for deploying denser base stations compared to previous generations. However, when utilising the sub 1Ghz spectrum, 5G can be rolled out over greater distances in rural areas. Overall, the cost of maintaining base stations is one of the critical issues in the broader rollout of 5G.
The ITU is already considering the utilisation of HAPS or High altitude platform systems, where the mobile base stations are running on solar-powered HAPS at an altitude of 20 to 25 km above the ground. The height will significantly improve the line of sight compared to a traditional base station and help in providing 5G in rural areas and densely populated urban areas. A single HAP (fixed wing or balloon) is in a position to cover a larger area with sub 6GHz compared to a traditional base station.
Using Network Function Virtualization, these High Altitude mobile base stations can be repositioned by rolling out different add-ons depending on the situation on the ground. For example, during disasters, HAPS would be in a position to provide immediate emergency communications for response teams.
HAPS is no longer a theoretical study. The WRC-19 studies identified the spectrum needs for HAPS front haul and backhaul. The WRC-19 has stated the spectrum needs for HAPS systems to be in the range of 396 MHz to 2 969 MHz for the ground-to-HAPS platform links and in the range of 324 MHz to 1 505 MHz for the HAPS-platform-to-ground links.
The WRC-19 proposed that the spectrum for HAPS is to cover the frequency bands 47/48 GHz, 2 GHz, 27/31 GHz and 6 GHz respectively. WRC-19 has also called for additional studies to be conducted to formalise the allocation of spectrum for HAPS in the WRC-23, following which commercial rollouts will follow.
Africa should consider HAPS for the rollout of 5G and 6G network; this will enable faster rollout compared to traditional tower-based deployments, which are expensive to monitor and maintain. Using a cluster of HAPS across a single town, the HAPS can be quickly repositioned to different areas depending on requirements.
Even 3GPP, the body responsible for Protocol definition of 5G and 6G, is including HAPS in its Release 18 to Release 20 which would include the specification of building Industry-standard and compliant system for interoperability.
Google has progressed quite a bit on HAPS using Project Loon, where it has rolled out HAPS for 4G LTE in remote corners of Kenya.
Africa, with more than a Billion people over 30 million square kilometres, means that utilising HAPS would accelerate the deployment of 5G and 6G, thereby creating a unique business opportunity for various enterprises. Organisations such as the HAPS alliance are working hard to eliminate the digital divide by driving the adoption of HAPS globally. HAPS can play a significant role in connecting the unconnected on the African continent.
While adopting HAPS systems would significantly reduce the Last-mile roll out of 5G, one of the critical aspects of 5G is the requirement of cheaper international bandwidth and connectivity.
This is now being facilitated by two Submarine cables, one sponsored by Google through Equiano and the other by Facebook 2Africa. These cables will deliver a total of 300 Tbps capacity and would easily disrupt the existing International connectivity to drop the pricing to near zero. Also, massive investments in Hyperscale data centres near these landing points would significantly accelerate the deployments of Cloud and Edge Solutions, to add value to the 5G/6G network.
With AWS and Azure already having a Hyperscale region in South Africa, we are seeing Oracle, AliCloud planning to launch services with Africa already primed for acceleration. One of the critical differentiators for 5G service providers and Hyperscalers is that Africa has minimal legacy or Brownfield infrastructure, making way for faster deployment of services and not burdened with older infrastructure for backward compatibility.
The investment in hyperscale data centres is not just happening in South Africa, but also in Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, DRC and other places. These investments are correlated with the submarine landing sites of either Google’s Equiano Fiber or Facebook’s 2Africa.
Road to 6G
While 5G is still in the conceptual stage in Africa, across the world, there is already talks of 6G and its rollout. The ITU has already included in its agenda for WRC-23 to table the discussion about identifying and studying new IMT spectrum. There are discussions already that 6G opensource RAN be available before WRC-27.
South Korea (as one of the first countries to roll out 5G) has already started working with Samsung to understand the implications of 6G and is already planning for 6G rollout in 2028.
It is envisaged that between 5G and 6G, there is not much difference in the Protocol or the Architecture since both will be software-first. It is therefore essential to future proof any 5G network. Similar to 5G, 6G would be built on software architecture with a focus on OpenSource. OpenRAN would find continuous adoption and 6G would foster further adoption of Edge Computing and drive value-added services such as AI, IoT and more.
When we look at the evolution of mobile network generations from the first generation in the 1970s, it took us over 40 years to reach 5G. The technology evolution of the generations to come will take a shorter time. They will follow a different pattern that is driven by open-source, Cloud, new architecture, software and New Radio (NR). Therefore, there will be new business and technology models for deploying future generations of mobile networks. We will not take 40 years to reach 10G. The new software-driven models will allow us to get to 10G in a shorter period. This means that we need to fundamentally change the way we look at future generations of mobile networks.
Hence driving 5G through software-first approach is extremely important as the switch from 5G to 6G would be more focused on building a network with OpenSource technologies and using technologies such as NFV, Kubernetes and OpenStack. This would facilitate the migration from 5G to 6G as a software update rather than replacing the entire infrastructure or deploying additional Base stations.
Therefore, because of limited 4G infrastructure, Africa must focus on rolling out low-cost 5G built on OpenRAN infrastructure and powered by opensource to keep the overall cost relatively low.
The use of mmWave spectrum coupled with network densification and massive MIMO will provide networks with ultra-high speeds. 5G CHAMPION is an exciting project leveraging mmWave. 5G CHAMPION is leveraging cutting-edge solutions of mmWave backhauling, transceivers and reconfigurable antennas. The results of this project were demonstrated during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The project showcased how mmWave can enable short-latency applications and broadband applications with stationary, high and ultra-high user mobility. This supports the view that 5G applications go way beyond telecommunications. Therefore, to reap the full benefits that this technology promises, there must be a broader outlook.
Now that 5G is being rolled out globally, researchers are already hard at work on 6G to ensure that the world can benefit from even faster speeds. In the USA, AT&T has already started working on 6G networking. 6G will enable new technologies such as digital twins and new applications in IoT. South Korea has confirmed plans to carry out a 6G pilot as early as 2026. The government in South Korea anticipates that commercial 6G could be available as soon as 2027. AT&T and Verizon will be holding a 6G symposium in October 2020. The event aims to increase public awareness, excitement, and engagement around articulating a strong vision for 6G. The leap from 5G to 6G will be shorter than the previous network leaps due to the increasing speed of technological advancements in networking. As the world prepares for WRC-23, studies are being done of new frequency bands for IMT-2020 advanced.
The global developments towards 6G indicate that 5G will be short-lived, and we need to start looking at how 6G will impact the African economy. With speeds that are 100 times faster than 5G, 6G is set to be a much more significant disrupter than 5G. Commercial deployment of 6G is possibly only six years away, leaving very little time for 5G to be widely adopted and to optimise return on investment. This is why countries must ensure they licence the relevant spectrum when the ITU announces it at WRC or before. If a country fails to do so, it will continue to lag behind the innovation curve. Cycles between generations are becoming shorter, so the business model and spectrum model need to change to take into consideration return on investment. We must not allow Africa to be one or two generations behind as this will result in us being a dumping ground for older proprietary technology. The emergence of Open Source in telecommunications allows for countries to leverage COTSx86; thus, there is no reason for African countries to lag behind the rest of the world.