5G - turn on the radio

Nokia are all about the connectivity. The handset side, that famously went the way of the dinosaur, was only ever a small part of their business. Their Oulu site calls itself the 'Home of radio', and is abuzz with the potential of 5G. and I recently saw a glimpse of the future... 

Nokia already has a localised iteration of 5G, and, whilst a lot of 5G is mostly hype at the moment, it's based on stuff that is coming soon. It's now about timelines and having the networks to support it.

One of the engineers presenting on my visit commented that today's car is a computer, but tomorrow's will be a data centre, so, in his view, connectivity is the key to the next generation of computing. The importance of capacity was also noted, but latency also needs to be reduced, as it will be 'as important in future as peak rates.'

Networks are evolving toward 5G, but this is not a flick of a switch. The rough timeline sees 2017 slated for a start on prestandards; 2018 to see a beginning of extreme mobile broadband; and 2020 heralding ultra-reliable low latency with standards-based 5G. 

The Olympics in Tokyo 2020 will be close to full deployment, with 2022 seeing widespread use. 

The commitment to the engineering challenge in Oulu, Nokia’s Finnish base, is clear. Of 2,500 employees at the site 1,400 are engineers. And with research and development, Bell labs and the factory all on the same site, the cross-fertilisation opportunities are immense. Nokia's view is that it will give them a huge advantage.

The assembled journos were given demonstrations of the live 5G iteration. Nokia showed a live VR feed from the factory floor through a VR headset, showing the operation of the factory in realtime. I suggested this may enable management to not have to go down there so much...

Another demonstration was multiple IoT devices on a mesh network - measuring temperature, air pressure and the like - and feeding back to an app-and laptop-enabled dashboard.

The testing setup was interesting. We were shown a room containing around 6,000 handsets, mounted in rows. These older models were making constant calls, texting and interacting with basestations to test load and handover efficiency. There are similar rooms for other types of handsets, and Nokia even restage events to locate faults. In another room, racks of servers were simulating the operations of 22 million users. 

Needed network changes

Later, at the University of Oulu, we were told that there will be a demonstration of 5G's potential at the Korean Winter Olympics 2018.

We were also given some insight into what network changes would be needed to make 5G fly. Because of the higher frequency of the radio transmissions, there is a shorter signal range, so 5G will necessarily be based on smaller cells. Essentially, the networks will need to be closer to users. This will necessitate changes in business models, with focus coming away from large telcos to more localised services.

The term 'micro-operators' was used to describe small locally owned networks. The type of content and its context will drive need e.g. On a train users may need to stream more video as they use downtime for entertainment, whereas a football match attender may need usage that ranges from simple stats, relaying of other scores and short video replays. Local operators would have an incentive to be involved in way the network runs. 

Other suggested developments were based on current trends: Healthcare on demand; wearable devices with realtime monitoring; wireless TV production and delivery (could you, for example, choose your own camera angle at the football?); wireless hospitals; and automated factories - where, when wired with IoT devices, efficiency improvements could be effected with insight as simple as the positions of materials in a work flow (an example Nokia are exploring).

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Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

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September 2017