Just weeks after the end of the long delayed auction of 4G spectrum, British policy makers are already turning to plans for the next generation of superfast mobile broadband that will be called, inevitably, 5G.
Ofcom, the communications regulator, will this week launch an industry consultation about freeing radio frequencies for 5G internet services many times the speed and capacity of today’s best 4G networks.
The early start to 5G planning signals determination by policy makers and industry to avoid the delays that have seen the UK fall behind many other developed countries in rolling out 4G services.
Steve Unger, chief technology officer for Ofcom, says: “There are three ways to meet the demand for more data – more spectrum, better use of spectrum and more cell sites. We need to progress on all three fronts, which is in effect what we mean by 5G, to meet the 80-fold increase in data usage we predict by 2030.
“We expect 5G will be about making mobile data ubiquitous – you won’t lose reception, or worry that your service will be too slow. It will always be there, always reliable, to the extent that it will become a fixed line substitute.”
The consultation launch coincides with a European Wireless Conference this week at the University of Surrey focused on using 5G technologies to solve an impending “spectrum crunch” that academics predict when radio space becomes fully used by 2020.
Data traffic over mobile devices is expected to increase globally 1,000-fold by 2020 on at least 50bn internet-capable devices, according to Professor Rahim Tafazolli, who will oversee a £35m grant from the UK government and mobile phone companies to help develop 5G mobile technologies at the University of Surrey.
He warns that mobile blackouts and patchy service will begin as major European capitals “run out of capacity by 2020”. Work needs to begin now, he says, given mobile data use is doubling every 18 months but mobile capacity has only doubled on previous generations of mobile technology every 10 years. This means that 5G will need to improve mobile capacity “by an order of magnitude” greater than previous generations, such as the shift from 3G to 4G, Mr Tafazolli says.
“Spectrum crunch will basically mean a shortage of supply and rising prices for users, leading to a widening gap between the technology ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, smaller markets for businesses and restrictions on the development of web-enabled technologies, products and services,” he says.
“Instead of the great opening up of the web, mass participation and new commercial opportunities, we’ll see a closing down.”
A key part of the 5G strategy will be freeing, and eventually selling, the high-powered lower bandwidth that is currently being used by TV services in the UK, setting the stage for the next lucrative spectrum auction for the government. Ofcom is also working on ways to use spectrum more efficiently, such as utilising unlicensed frequencies, including those known as “white spaces”, between existing uses and WiFi.
The Surrey centre is aimed at helping the UK close the gap with rival countries in mobile technology after falling behind since the early development of 2G.
Most mobile users have yet to even try 4G services in the UK, which will only be widely available this summer following the end of the long-awaited bandwidth auction in February.
The race is already on for 5G leadership, with Japan’s NTT DoCoMo testing mobile services at 10Gbps, 1,000 times quicker than some 4G services. At the mobile industry’s annual conference in Barcelona in February, Neelie Kroes, vice-president of the European Commission, said that Europe as a whole needed to keep pace with Asia and America in developing 5G.
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