Thoughts on 5G from Mobile World Congress

March 1, 2018

It’s been five years since my last Mobile World Congress (MWC). When I arrived in Barcelona at the end of February for this year’s conference, I was struck by how MWC has just become bigger and bigger in the intervening years – and it certainly wasn’t small when I was last there!

It’s extraordinary to see the whole telecoms industry gathering in one place for a week, building a temporary city within the walls of Barcelona. From start-up stands with one person and a single display to the glittering palatial areas of the big vendors like Huawei, the size and scope is amazing.

Nominet’s Emerging Technology team were in attendance to talk about some of our ongoing projects. This included talking about our driverless car initiative, Driven, as well as presenting on the potential of our TV White Space (TVWS) database and dynamic spectrum management to help improve rural connectivity.

The obvious theme of MWC as a whole was 5G. As the ITU standardisation process nears an end (hopefully in 2018), all the large vendors were showing 5G-ready network equipment. There is still some uncertainty about the final specifications but definitely a growing confidence that 5G will deliver services across low band, mid band and millimetre wave spectrum.

Although the technical questions are all but answered, there remains significant business questions around 5G. Heads of governments and telcos agree that 5G coverage needs to be nationwide and delivered at a scale that is economical and ensures no-one is left behind: a consensus that 5G must not deepen the digital divide.

However, there are a number of risks to consider as we approach the 5G future. Delivering multiple gigabits per second requires denser networks which require more infrastructure. This is costly to buy and to deploy. It also requires more spectrum – and the high price of spectrum adds to the costs involved in deploying 5G networks.

Making matters worse is the vagueness surrounding the business cases that would drive revenues and return on investment for the owners of these networks. There was much discussion about how enterprises will step up and use 5G to drive ‘Industry 4.0’. It was highlighted how 5G can serve the needs of industry, automating the workplace and factory floor, in addition to connecting consumers at greater speeds.

There is no single panacea for the industry and each country will have its own unique set of 5G challenges to be addressed. However, my view is that thinking differently about how we allocate our spectrum would be a good place to start. Thinking dynamically is a smart approach: for example, approaching spectrum allocation on a more granular basis and not a national basis would allow for 5G deployment in rural as well as urban areas. It would also allow enterprises to roll out their own networks, providing new revenue streams. At the same time, we must ensure the pricing of spectrum reflects the underlying reality of its use.

All of these represent a significant shift and potential disruption to an industry that has worked effectively and connected billions with the current model. Embracing these changes is not about a spectrum revolution but about optimising what we already have, ensuring we can effectively fulfil the promise of 5G connectivity.

These new approaches and their implications were being discussed in the hallways and meeting rooms at MWC this year. I hope next year we will see greater discussion and debate on the main stages of the event too. I’m already looking forward to MWC19!