The world is becoming increasingly digital. Nearly every daily process is governed, assisted or regulated by technology, and previously manual industries are turning to digital solutions in order to increase productivity and revenue. At the heart of these technologies are wireless networks, allowing users to connect more efficiently, as well as receive and make use of massive amounts of data.
With 5G now live in Birmingham, users and businesses will experience a dramatic shift in the capabilities of their networks. As leader of the Intelligent Systems and Networks (ISN) research group at Birmingham City University, I am looking forward to experiencing this shift first-hand. We are currently working on a number of projects that will support 5G rollout and its applications as well as exploring its impact on SMEs.
5G infrastructure: problems and solutions
For the user, 5G networks promise super-fast, ultra-reliable internet which will dramatically reduce download speeds and eliminate signal drop-out. Businesses will be able to minimise their expenditure by utilising superfast connectivity to become part of the data economy; gathering data faster and more accurately to improve their productivity and/or services. Before 5G can be properly utilised by SMEs, the service needs to be made robust and affordable, and with that aim comes certain challenges based on the nature of 5G frequencies.
5G radio frequencies are much higher than their current 4G counterparts, meaning they're less cluttered and carry information much faster, but these millimetre waves are fragile and dissipate over much shorter distances than robust lower frequencies. In order to remedy this, a 5G infrastructure needs a higher number of base stations to make up for the short range coverage. This presents certain challenges:
- Site planning becomes an issue as the West Midlands needs an estimated 15,000 new base stations to support 5G.
- Cost needs to be taken into account as each base station could cost between £50,000 and £150,000. This cost to the network provider is likely to impact the consumer in the form of service costs.
- Weak frequencies can’t penetrate most physical blockages; a leaf is enough to block high-frequency waves.
My colleagues and I at Birmingham City University’s ISN group have developed strategies to mitigate the cost and strengthen the infrastructure of 5G. These solutions include:
- Our Universal Intelligent Small Cell (UnISCell), which proposes the use of public infrastructures such as street lighting networks, landlines and existing cellular networks to act as cooperative links for a 5G base station. This increases the coverage of a single base station and reduces the number of stations required, which cut costs for the network operator leading to lower service costs for SMEs and end users. Local councils may also generate revenue with this approach by allowing network operators to use government-owned infrastructure.
- A dynamic spectrum sharing strategy, which presents an optimised method for allocating shared network resources. This strategy cuts the risk of the network reaching capacity and becoming less reliable.
Within the ISN research community, one of the bigger challenges that lie ahead is to define and develop how intelligently connectivity can be utilised to create wealth in our economy and enhance the quality of our lives. This is an important phase of digital transformation in our society with innovative uses of wireless connectivity, and access to a 5G testbed will allow us to work with businesses to meet their future connectivity requirements.
Business and the public sector
The future applications of 5G are numerous and the technology is likely to evolve in unprecedented ways. Generally, businesses will be using connectivity to serve user demands in three different contexts:
- Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) – supporting faster content delivery, more reliable data streaming and even fully immersive AR and VR in real time.
- Massive machine type communication (mMTC) – millions of sensors connected to serve smart cities or automated manufacturing.
- Ultra-reliable low latency communication (uRLLC) – eliminating lag, for instance between human input and machine output, allowing for a greater digitisation of the construction industry or medical care in hazardous environments.
Our research serves all the above aspects of 5G networks. We have a group of 26 academics and researchers who are actively involved with research problems related to 5G in the perspective of network operators, businesses, application developers and user experiences as well as relevant business modelling for data economy (D-Economy).
Predicting the future
One of the biggest impacts we can see 5G having on the future is the disruption of traditional business models and the opportunities that will bring. It’s likely that creative digital development will generate revenue quicker than before – hence a faster growth in creative, ideas-based SMEs. Ownership of mobile networks will potentially move away from traditional operators and fall more into the hands of small service operators and social networks.
Imagine a social network that owns mobile network infrastructure that will provide the internet for free to its members, or a search engine that has to share any profits made by analysing the search behaviour of its users. Put simply, we may well have free internet or the possibility to earn money with our searches or by sharing an idea with others.
Finally, I am looking forward to being part of the West Midlands Combined Authority 5G testbed. My research group ready to deliver the innovation in infrastructure and business model developments for a new generation of social network and search engine. Let’s make the West Midlands the proud founder of digital revolution around the world by using our multi-city 5G testbed to foster business innovation.