5G is a gradual and continuous process, says Telefónica architecture director
There’s a lot of excitement in the vendor community about deploying 5G but many operators remain cautious and see years of fit for purpose performance in 4G and 4.5G technologies. Nevertheless, operators recognise the need to prepare for 5G and are taking steps to do so, as Juan Carlos García, the technology and architecture director in the Global CTIO unit of Telefónica, tells VanillaPlus in an exclusive interview with George Malim.
George Malim: When do you expect to see commercial deployments – as opposed to trials and pilots – of 5G happening?
Juan Carlos García: Massive commercial deployment of 5G will most likely happen beyond 2022 as conditions make it possible – such as technology maturity and device availability, or needed – such as required by specific use cases, like fixed wireless access (FWA) or capacity extensions [that are] not possible with the LTE spectrum portfolio. Initial trials will be conducted around 2020, although FWA in mm-waves and some pre-5G capabilities could happen earlier, and lab tests on 5G techniques have been happening since 2015. However, the start of 5G networks is not tied to a single specific event but rather to a process that Telefónica has already initiated.
GM: How is Telefónica approaching 5G? What’s your strategy for preparing to launch 5G?
JCG: The position of Telefónica regarding 5G is to incorporate in our networks functionalities that clearly demonstrate improvements in capacity and user experience as soon as they become available. This means that much of the technology that will be part of the 5G standard is being gradually incorporated in our deployments over our existing LTE infrastructure as they become commercial. 5G has to be seen as a gradual and continuous process that will be carried out over the next few years.
GM: What do you see as the main business opportunities enabled by 5G? Is it just a case of offering more bandwidth at a lower cost per bit or do you see it revolutionising the telecoms business?
JCG: Technologies that are part of 5G are being continuously defined and developed, not only for the purpose of offering better wireless capabilities for mobile broadband, but also for supporting more advanced use cases closely related to a number of vertical industries with very different requirements. These requirements have to be translated to specific network functionalities, and standards are still working to improve the latency and reliability aspects of 5G to fulfil the industry’s needs.
Without any doubt, connectivity for the Internet of Things is an important driver and its use cases will encourage the adoption of this new technology. Enhanced mobile broadband [to enable] the delivery of new [types of] content, such as immersive video, virtual and augmented reality, cloud gaming, mobile office and others, is another service category that will significantly benefit from the new 5G capabilities. Latency and reliability will enable applications like driving safety and assistance or remote machine control, although the business case remains still unclear.
GM: How challenging is it to add new skills and learn new techniques such as network slicing and embracing greater automation (in the network)?
JCG: It is necessary to acquire new skills in all technological changes, and this is a constant in the telecoms industry. Network slicing and virtualisation demand new skills that belong to the realms of IT and cloud technologies. However, all the previous skills related to wireless and wireline networking have to be mastered in order to build end-to-end systems that fulfil IMT-2020 requirements.
GM: To what extent do you see being first to market with 5G as an advantage?
JCG: There are still many challenges to overcome in 5G from the points of view of investment, business models and technology. That is the reason why I would not talk about advantages of being the first in the market, but rather the advantage of making a special effort on network evolution to get a future-proof network.
For instance, we believe that our significant involvement in 5G research is relevant because it allows us to dig deeply into potentially disrupting technologies, which could open the door to new vertical markets that can be as attractive as the better-known enhanced mobile broadband. It is a journey that we are going through and this effort will be worth it, not only to be among the first ones in the market, but also to be able to equip our network with even better capabilities and more efficient and scalable architectures.
GM: Why are we talking about 5G now when 4G roll-out is incomplete, standards aren’t set and use cases and business cases are still unclear?
JCG: In Telefónica we look at 5G not only as an evolution of the radio, but as an opportunity to apply new concepts that can transform our network to make it much more flexible and agile. Concepts like virtualisation, enabled with network functions virtualisation (NFV), software defined networking (SDN) and cloud, can be applied to the architecture – the 5G core and the radio access network (RAN) progressing towards a fully converged fixed and mobile network (FMC). In short, virtualisation technologies will bring efficiency. We are talking about an evolutionary transformation of the network that may bring some of the expected 5G capabilities earlier as an evolution of the current LTE networks. On the other hand, a good part of the next investment in 4G in terms of fibre, antennas, base band units, the virtualisation environment and others may be re-used, and sets up the basis, for the future 5G rollout.
The evolution to 5G is a path of innovation that should be sustained over time. At Telefónica we have been working for five years in network virtualisation (NFV/SDN) developments and we have already applied this concept to a large number of network functions. We have conducted tests of RAN virtualisation, cloud RAN and RAN slicing in the laboratory and in trials. We are firmly committed towards achieving fixed-mobile convergence across all network layers. We have tested new antenna systems including massive MIMO and mm-waves. We are also testing in the lab and field new services such as those in vehicular communications and gaming, among others. We understand that 5G is a long journey, and we are working on several areas to get a future-proof network in the meantime.