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We should be more realistic about 5G

Yehia El Amine

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5G - Telecom

There lies an unprecedented level of excitement shared by many far and wide, across almost all industries worldwide, as the world holds its breath awaiting the rollout of fifth-generation mobile networks.

And rightfully so, since 5G will trigger a massive technological revolution on humanity which will affect every aspect of day-to-day life, as well as boost economies across the globe, and places a strong weapon in the fight against climate change.

Even the numbers backup these claims.

According to a study done by Finnish telecom giant Nokia, 5G-enabled industries will contribute $8 trillion in value to the global economy by 2030, and predicted 71 percent of companies will invest in the network standard over the next five years.

“Companies with advanced levels of 5G adoption saw net 10 percent increase in productivity following the Covid-19 pandemic; the only group able to maintain or increase customer engagement during the health crisis,” the study highlighted.

Dominating the headlines

Everywhere you look, read, research, or watch, people will always stumble on a piece of news about the 5G rollout, especially from governmental and corporate perspectives.

The reason for this is due to extreme levels of competition and pressure between nations/continents and their respective telcos to reach the finish line faster than their counterparts due to the “first-mover advantage.”

In other words, early adapters and deployment of 5G will accrue enormous levels of economic value, profits, and leading the charge in technological innovation; this alone gives incentive for companies and countries to consolidate and cement their position within the 5G bubble to maximize returns.

“As organizations across the world move faster towards deployment of 5G enabled technologies, those who wish to be the first to leverage its potential cannot afford to lose more time. To capture the tremendous opportunities of 5G, organizations must start or intensify their planning now and accelerate business model innovation to remain competitive in a rapidly digitalizing global economy,” Gabriela Styf Sjöman, Nokia Chief Strategy Officer, said in the report.

5G and China

We need to address the elephant in the room.

The players leading the line on 5G are not Western, Japanese, or South Korean, but rather China-based titans such as Huawei and ZTE.

China’s rise in the 5G sector can be accredited toward failed attempts of entering the 3G market on a worldwide scale a decade ago; and it looks as though they’ve greatly learned from their previous mistakes.

The Chinese government took note of this and went on to launch a plethora of major public investments in this area, and developed a coherent strategy, while private companies conducted research and patented their seminal technologies.

This, however, hasn’t been sitting well with leaders of the Western hemisphere, and a question of trust and reliability has been posed throughout the world.

Massive technological changes are almost always accompanied by doubts, fears, and weak points that can be regarded as severe political implications. China fits this narrative perfectly since it is no secret that Chinese companies have a direct political connection to their government, as well as the intelligence community.

And some of the world’s largest governments have started taking action.

The U.S. and the UK have both taken restrictive steps in halting Chinese companies, primarily Huawei, from accessing their 5G networks.

US Congress has passed some bills with wide bipartisan consensus – such as the so-called “rip and replace act” (signed into law by President Donald Trump in March 2020) – which compel Huawei and other Chinese companies to stick to stricter security controls or, in other cases, support Western companies in the 5G competition.

In parallel, British PM Boris Johnson has enacted a similar ban on the Chinese telecom giant, forcing telcos across the UK to take down Huawei telecommunications equipment with a deadline until 2027.

Other allies have followed suit, with some enforcing stricter regulations on Chinese tech companies. In late 2019, the Italian government approved a law establishing a “National Cyber-Security Perimeter” which in turn introduced more stringent rules and procedures to assess the security of 5G equipment.

The German government is thought to be setting tight restrictions for the Chinese firm in its own IT security bill due to be presented later this month. But Deutsche Telekom, Germany’s largest telecom provider, estimates that replacing Huawei equipment with other manufacturers could cost nearly €3bn.

Realistic challenges of 5G

While the promise of what’s to come can be mesmerizing to many, the road to 5G is still a distant reality, especially since there are a number of hurdles that telcos need to jump through before reaching their full potential.

A lot of work needs to be done by both the public and private sectors to successfully usher in the arrival of 5G. Let’s examine the biggest ones so far:

1. Deployment

This isn’t going to be an easy feat, a lot of partnerships, coordination and cohesion needs to happen on both sides of the aisle to rollout the fifth generation of mobile networks as efficiently and quickly as possible.

Building more complex and dense networks will be more difficult than current networks, since 5G antennas and RAN hardware, although powerful, cover significantly less space compared with existing 4G macro-cells.

In other words, to have the same coverage as 4G, more hardware and supporting software should be put in place, which is a number that multiplies even more as traffic moves indoors. And this of course, will take its toll on spending since 5G equipment will significantly increase operating expenses (OpEx).

Networks must be configured, tested, managed, and updated regularly.

In addition, technology with such high levels of impact can pack with it new risks; given the highly distributed, connected, and sometimes remote nature of 5G networks, new consideration must be given to potential cybersecurity issues that arise.

2. Government regulations

Governments must act with haste, and sit down with telcos to discuss the elements needed to commence the rollout strategy of 5G; this should incentivize the public sector to fully capitalize on its coordination with telcos across the board, in order to propel itself ahead of the competition.

A prime example of this PPP cooperation can be seen with Canada, where the country’s largest telecom operators have committed to building out their respective networks within regulated limits set by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED), the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) and Health Canada.

3. Expenses, expenses, expenses

The conversion from 4 to 5G will generate a hefty price tag and this will reflect on customers since prices will increase to fund the conversion. The same notion happened when we moved to LTE, and it’s expected that 5G will follow suit.

The reason for this is because the infrastructure needed won’t be considered as modifications on the current networks, but literally paving the way for something new altogether.

Total global spending on 5G is set to reach $88 billion (€78.4 billion) by 2023, according to Heavy Reading’s Mobile Operator 5G Capex.

4. Security and privacy

As any data-driven technology, 5G rollout will drag along with it more sophisticated acts of cyberattacks across the board.

Though 5G falls under the Authentication and Key Agreement (AKA), a system designed to establish trust between networks, it would currently be possible to track people nearby using their phones or even eavesdrop on live phone calls.

This will force tech companies far and wide to ensure that their cloud-based services are airtight when it comes to security, in the attempt of protecting user data and privacy.

5. E-waste

According to studies conducted by the United Nations Environment Program, the rate of e-waste currently produced is up to 50 million tons yearly. Cell phones, tablets, computers, and televisions.

And this will only increase with 5G rollout.

Some environmental organizations are already calling on tech companies to foot the bill of recycling the electronics they manufacture and sell. This has picked up traction in some parts of Europe, Canada, and the US who have passed the so-called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws, which require manufacturers to set-up and fund systems to recycle or collect obsolete products.

Others are calling on the expansion of the circular economy, which aims to keep products and all their materials in circulation at their highest value at all times or for as long as possible to be used in the manufacture of others gadgets and tech.

Reality check

As much as this new technology is exciting, the dream of 5G is a longer road than both investors, policy makers, and investors expect or want.

And the numbers back it up clearly.

According Nokia’s report, very few main players are considered 5G mature; 13 percent of organizations in Saudi Arabia and 12 percent in the United States were rated as 5G mature, fewer than one in 20 were classed as such in Germany (3 percent), Finland (2 percent) and the UK (4 percent).

Executing life-changing tech was always going to be hard, and more hurdles are stepping into the limelight on a day-by-day basis; thus humanity needs to work smart in such scenarios to leverage the endless possibilities that the new technological revolution will bring to light.

Yehia is an investigative journalist and editor with extensive experience in the news industry as well as digital content creation across the board. He strives to bring the human element to his writing.

Feature Articles

IoT: The hidden costs of the always connected age

Inside Telecom Staff

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IOT Hidden Cost

By: Hannes Gredler, founder and CTO of RtBrick.

Homes are overflowing with connected devices. Everything from “smart” televisions, speakers, light bulbs, and even smart microwaves have surged in popularity in the past several years – with over 10 billion IoT devices expected to be in use worldwide this year. Many of these devices are always-on and always-connected, ready to be used at the utterance of a simple voice command. This means that even when they aren’t “on,” the devices are still consuming data. This explosion in data consumption comes at a cost, however, and so far, telecommunication companies have borne the brunt of it.

Data isn’t free. Increased network capacity takes power, and power costs money. Multiplied across the millions of customers in a company’s network, the effects become significant. Most broadband plans offered by telecoms operators allow unlimited data access for a set monthly price, with packages priced by bandwidth rather than total data usage. This is great for consumers who continue to stream more and add new connected devices to their homes, but still pay the same price for internet. For the companies providing the network, every additional bit of data consumed comes at a cost.

Most consumers are not prepared to pay more for this increased data that fuels their IoT devices and allows Netflix to be binged for hours on end. This leaves telecom companies in a predicament. How can they keep customers happy without raising prices, while not becoming overwhelmed by the large increases in data being consumed thanks to the influx of connected devices?

The complications of growing data needs

Network service providers can typically expect a 35 to 40 percent growth in their network traffic each year, a number that will only continue to climb as connected devices become more prevalent. This traffic is mainly delivered using CDNs (Content Delivery Networks), which hold copies of popular content in servers embedded throughout the network. Although this mitigates investment in the core of the network, it doesn’t help reduce costs in the access networks, which are consuming an increasing amount of data and power.

When it comes to data consumption, not all connected devices are created equal either. Some only consume data in short bursts when being used – like a laptop used for web browsing. Smart TVs, on the other hand, are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to data consumption, with an HD TV stream using 5 Mbps and a 4k stream using 10 Mbps. This is constant whenever the television is in use, making the total data sent quickly amass as consumers stream episode after episode.

Other devices that come in high on the data usage list include video chat services like Skype and Zoom, gaming, a CCTV security camera backing up to the cloud, and smart home devices that are always on and connected, even when no one is home. This last group is often overlooked when it comes to data consumption. While it’s easy to understand how streaming HD TV for hours can consume a lot of data, many people don’t realize that their smart speakers, lightbulbs, doorbells and other home IoT devices are constantly pinging data to their respective servers. This is why they’re always ready to use at a moment’s notice, but also what makes the addition of each new device to a home so costly from a network perspective.

The social distancing measures being used to mitigate the current Covid-19 pandemic are an example of what happens when this growth in data consumption occurs quickly. People are staying home and working remotely in high numbers – and using their home networks much more than usual. In Europe, networks haven’t been able to handle this influx, forcing content providers to only allow video to be streamed in standard definition. While this heightened network load is being caused by a serious situation that requires sacrifices, it also provides a look into the future at what can happen as the number of devices in use surges. Remote working was already a benefit gaining popularity before this current crisis, and its proving that networks will need to increase their efficiency and ability to scale to cope.

Overcoming the growth barrier

With data needs only set to increase as connected devices rise in popularity, telecom companies need to be able to scale their networks to accommodate the increasing data load, while cutting costs. The power behind networks is always going to come with a price, but the systems distributing the data across the network can be made more effective. Restructuring, reorganization and efficiency measures have their limits to solving the issue, however.

Telecom companies have been following the same network building playbook for years, but it unfortunately no longer works in the age of connected devices. To adapt networks so they can handle modern technologies, telecom companies should follow the path of their more modern, cloud-native counterparts. These companies have exceled by building their infrastructure using off-the-shelf hardware, running independent software, and deploying it using zero-touch-provisioning systems. Just think about how easy it is for Facebook to roll out a new feature or scale their platform that can handle influxes of use with relative ease.

There’s no reason that telecom companies can’t emulate this and look to build their networks in a similar way. Formally, this is known as network disaggregation. Simply, it means that networking software and hardware are purchased separately. In the past, networking infrastructure and software has been only sold as a package, but as networks modernize and look to model themselves after internet-natives that’s changing. Aside from being able to scale and update with ease, the main benefit of the disaggregated model is that its costs are greatly reduced. This will be vital as the number of connected devices surge.

Network service providers also need to plan better to ensure they aren’t caught in a situation where they can’t keep up with rising data consumption. Passing costs onto consumers will not be an option as competition and innovation in the space continues to progress. Knowing that data usage will only continue to surge, telecom companies need to plan for the future and adopt a network structure that will allow them to make upgrades to provide more data and increased bandwidth for devices that require it. This means looking beyond the typical network upgrade cycle that happens every few years and shifting to a model that allows scaling and software upgrades to happen in a quicker and more cost-effective manner.

Connected devices don’t have to mean the downfall of traditional telecoms companies and their networks, but their near exponential growth will require a new mindset when it comes to building access networks.

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Growing use of cloud storage, but a hybrid approach remains

Yehia El Amine

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Cloud

Technological trends and developments are changing the way data is stored, along with the way it needs to be protected; which is why data security has been placed at the heart of organizations’ concerns as they edge closer toward complete digitization.

As data continues to become not only more valuable, but also more essential for how organizations operate, so does its targeting by cybercriminals far and wide.

In parallel, high-profile data breaches are making the public more distrustful of organizations who store personal data – and causing governmental entities to create stringent compliance regulations.

According to numbers by U.S.-based market intelligence firm IDC, the total volume of digital data people and businesses have created worldwide is approximately 50 zettabytes in 2020 and is projected to triple by 2025.

While companies have either opted toward complete cloud storage, or on-premise storage, the risk remains the same.

“Attacks on cloud services have more than doubled, while ransomware demands are now the leading form of incidents during data breaches,” a report by U.S.-based cybersecurity firm, Trustwave stated.

The report added that the global annual cost of cybercrime, when factoring in regulatory fines, is projected to run into the trillions in the near future.

Trustwave has also recently published a survey to touch up on how enterprises are protecting and storing their data.

Small in numbers, big in responsibilities 

According to the survey, over 75 percent of respondents were part of organizations with over 500 employees and 40 percent were part of organizations with over 1,000 employees.

Yet, of those polled, most (24 percent) had a security team size between 16-20. Just 20 percent had a team of 21 or greater. On average, Singapore had the smallest security team size with 47 percent reporting having between 1-10 members.

Thus, with the average cost of data breaches rising, the stakes for organizations couldn’t be higher.

“Cybercrime is becoming so prevalent, organizations are now putting as much emphasis on detection and response as they are prevention— meaning that small cybersecurity teams are compelled to use managed security services providers and automation tools and services to supplement efforts,” the survey highlighted.

Increased use of cloud storage

When asked where their data currently resides, most respondents (55 percent) said that they use both public cloud and on-premises databases to store data, while only 17 percent solely use public cloud only.

Singapore organizations use the hybrid model much more frequently at 73 percent which is 18 percent higher than the total, and US organizations use it less frequently at 45 percent, while storing data on-premises only, the most at 35 percent.

While many organizations across industries are moving their sensitive data into some form of cloud storage such as multi-cloud environments and cloud-based services, including cloud-based applications, the focus on security intensifies.

“There’s a common misconception that cloud service providers (CSPs) are responsible for security of the platform or share liability for breaches. That’s almost always not true – meaning your team is still responsible for finding security solutions that can work seamlessly no matter where your data resides, whether it’s on-premises, in the cloud(s) or split across a combination of both,” the survey emphasized.

More than one service

When asked how many third-party cloud services organizations use, most respondents at 70 percent use between 2-4 public cloud services followed by 18 percent using 0 or just one, and 12 percent use 5 or more.

At 14 percent, the United States had the most instances of using 5 or more public cloud services followed by the United Kingdom at 13 percent, while Australia and Singapore were tied at 9 percent.

“What’s interesting here is the added level of complexity that security teams now face, with cybersecurity teams tasked with managing multiple vendors – as well as needing to account for the previously mentioned additional security risks that cloud services create,” the survey reported.

However, the prevalent approach by enterprises has been to adopt a hybrid model of using both cloud and on-premise data storage to not have a centralized database, which acts as another line of defense against hackers by removing one piece of the puzzle away from their digital fingertips.

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O2 expands 5G rollout in 100 UK towns & cities

Yehia El Amine

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5G

UK operator O2 announced their fifth-generation network expansion plan that will cover over 100 UK towns and cities, a year after they had initially kicked off their 5G rollout. 

While partnering with Nordic vendors Ericsson and Nokia for their 5G infrastructure, O2, which is owned by Spanish telco Telefonica, will allow existing customers a refresh tariff to move onto 5G at their convenience.

“When we launched 5G last October, we said it was the first step on a journey. One year on and we have made some incredible progress, not just in terms of our roll-out but in bringing about new capabilities that will make real changes to people’s everyday lives,” Derek McManus, Chief Operating Officer at O2, said in a statement.

With continuous investment into new technologies, O2 has successfully built up approximately 10,000 LTE-M sites that are now live across the country.

“We firmly believe 5G has a role in helping to rebuild Britain, unlocking huge possibilities for our economy and society. We’re excited to keep pushing ahead with our rollout along with our partners Ericsson and Nokia, to keep supporting our customers, businesses and society,” McManus added.

The new network will cover 57 percent of premises and 58 percent of the population while allowing billions of devices to be connected to the internet to collect and share data.

5G and UK businesses

Over the last year, O2 has increased their focus on working alongside local businesses and consortia to test and build 5G use cases to enhance the way we work and live and help rebuild Britain.

Among those initiatives, the UK operator has partnered up with Northumbrian Water Group to enable experienced technicians to remotely guide on-the-ground teams through complex tasks by relaying real-time data and instructions using augmented reality (AR) technology, creating ‘Remote Experts’.

“No one could have predicted the way this year has turned out, and that almost overnight, customers would turn to their networks more than ever before to keep them connected to loved ones, colleagues and suppliers. Connectivity has never been more important, and we want our network to continue to raise the bar,” O2 COO highlighted.

In parallel, O2 launched the first commercial laboratory for 5G and satellite communications in the UK as part of Project Darwin, a four-year trial program supported by the European Space Agency and based in the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire.

The laboratory is now open to companies looking to test proof of concept for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) using both 5G and satellite communications.

The operator has also teamed up with the University of Glasgow to work with the NHS to deliver a pilot trial of a fully connected 5G powered clinic-on-wheels, in order to track COVID-19 at six care homes in Glasgow.

In addition, O2 is working with Deloitte, Wayra and Digital Catapult to build 5G accelerators in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, and Coventry.

These facilities will comprise of centrally located office and demonstration spaces with access to a private 5G network allowing businesses and public sector organizations to experiment with 5G features that aren’t yet commercially released.

The competition

Previously, tensions spiked between O2 and rivals Three UK after the former criticized Ofcom’s recent proposal to defragment the 5G ultrafast mobile broadband friendly 3.4-3.8GHz radio spectrum bands after next year’s auction.

The Office of Communications is the government-approved regulatory and competition authority for the broadcasting, telecommunications, and postal industries of the United Kingdom.

The operator complained that the decision favors Three UK (H3G) by allowing them to establish a “kingmaker” position from where they can obstruct rivals.                                     

This was partially due to OfCom’s attempt to rebalance the market to make the differences in spectrum ownership between network operators less dramatic.

The amount and type of spectrum that an operator has is crucial for all sorts of reasons, not least because it can have an impact upon network coverage, rollout costs and particularly data performance (mobile broadband speed).

However, Three UK is in a different position when it comes to 5G because they already harbor 140MHz of related spectrum, including a single 100MHz contiguous block (rivals tend to have 50MHz or 40MHz blocks).

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