On a scale of one to 10, where would you say we are in terms of using the full potential of 5G?
I’d say we’re at a four. First of all, although 5G deployment has gotten underway quickly, starting with us at Vodafone, its biggest impacts will be on businesses and B2B2C relationships. There are already several use cases being developed with companies, but there’s still a long way to go. Adopting technological changes is never easy, but what’s exciting is that deploying 5G can open up several use cases at once. For example, you could have a connected factory with automated guided vehicles (AGVS), people and systems able to analyze the machinery in real-time and various levels of communication all operating off of a 5G base.
Besides that, even though we can already get most of the benefits from 5G, the 700 MHz bands still haven’t gone through auctions. This has been delayed primarily by the Covid-19 pandemic and is expected to begin from July of this year. This band can penetrate interior spaces better, and therefore, improve or make possible a lot of use cases. Once this is up and running, we’ll begin to see 5G having a larger impact.
The deployment started with 5G Non-Standalone Architecture (NSA), which was reusing existing infrastructure and is considered the standard 5G by the 3GPP. But, until we have 5G Stand Alone (SA), which adds new infrastructure and changes part of the network core, we won’t have access to all 5G’s capacities like network slicing. In any case, at Vodafone, under the umbrella of Red.es, all the capabilities have already been tested so they’re ready to be deployed in a real and more extended environment.
I would also like to add to this that the majority of mobile devices on the market that have 5G don’t perform optimally with 5G SA. In other words, they aren’t fully prepared to take advantage of everything this network has to offer. So, even if 5G SA was already deployed, individual users would hardly notice the difference.
What do you think are the most interesting applications of 5G at the moment?
Today, at the level of an individual user, it is already offering faster download speeds and lower latencies for interactions with cloud services. There still hasn’t really been a massive case for Edge Computing for a typical user. But we do have gaming in cloud servers without Edge and users can load audiovisual content faster, meaning buffering when you pass through certain areas with poorer coverage basically disappears.
There are already several companies that have already implemented 5G in a real way. Look at the port of Barcelona, where a control system has been tested to dock boats with artificial vision, which helps the captains of the ships and control tower a lot.
Some companies have also started to use Edge Computing and a mobile private network (MPN) so they can have complete control of their facilities through sensors. It’s given rise to Digital Twins that would have previously been unthinkable.
Another interesting application case is with predictive maintenance for high precision machinery. By measuring and computing in real-time, thanks to data combined with the right algorithms, many of the layers of production won’t need scheduled shutdowns. Instead, the system is capable of self-adjusting (closed-cycle operations) or sending maintenance alarms to operators so that the impacts of any pauses, defective parts, etc. are as small as possible.
We also have virtual and augmented reality experiences, which have been tested both for individual and business users. 5G can open big opportunities here, as VR and AR consume a significant amount of information, and fluidity is key.
On the medical side, like with a factory, anything that increases the capacities of operators, improves access to information or cuts wires, will be disruptive in the coming years. Tests have already been carried out in this area, but it will really take off with the 700 MHz bands and new applications.
Apart from these examples, connected vehicles and cities can already benefit from 5G and take a massive leap forward in terms of mobility. This will likely take time to arrive but even with the existing technology, it’s possible. It’s only a question of time.
Could you explain why Edge Computing is so important for telecom companies?
Edge Computing can fundamentally change the role that telecom companies have today. They could go from being a mere spectator to taking action in terms of what really happens in various industries.
I believe it’s a critical element, but I’m agnostic in terms of how telecom companies are really going to take advantage of it. It’s one thing to offer a service under your umbrella and another to simply be needed by clients because you have the necessary spectrum for the use of this technology. In one case, you dominate the technology and in the other, you’re an intermediary. In some cases being an intermediary is great, but other times, not so much. To be a good intermediary, you need to open up and get to know your customers and configure the best possible products, even if the manufacturer of the hardware is a third-party. But it remains to be seen how this will play out.
In Germany, they’ve already created specific portable Edge Computing racks for various industry use cases. If you position yourself there and design things right, alongside your client and supplier, then you can add value and everyone benefits if it goes well. In the case of private clients, it’s a similar story. You can position yourself to offer services that make the most out of Edge Computing and even create joint content… or simply remain a spectator.
What other technologies do you see on the horizon that could disrupt the telecom sector?
I think that communications satellite technology could see a boom in the coming years, generating use cases in places where it wasn’t easy to do so before. Here, telecom companies again have to decide how they want to position themselves.
There are already a lot of companies that aren’t traditional telecoms companies that are deploying this type of communication technology at a much lower cost than before. It’s true that they still aren’t cheap enough to be rolled out at the same level as the current deployments, but it’s certainly something to keep in mind.
SpaceX is able to launch its satellites at zero cost thanks to the reuse of the launch space when it already has petitions from other customers. Airbus has already developed unmanned solar aircraft that stay aloft in the stratosphere for extended periods – using only sunlight as energy. They are a type of pseudo-satellite and can provide communication to remote areas. It’s also been testing long-lasting hot air balloons for similar purposes for many years. We’ll see what happens in the future with all of these upcoming alternatives.
At the same time, the entire hyperlocalization and global management layer is really interesting. We can increase the accuracy of GPS with the combined use of the communications network and even begin to offer localization inside tunnels so you don’t lose track of where you need to travel. This isn’t only due to the infrastructure, but also the fact that IoT technology is becoming so lightweight that soon we’ll be seeing some really interesting use cases. Today, with a simple flexible printed circuit, you can already know where a box is, if it's being hit, temperature variations and whether or not it's open. There are also devices like Veri, which can be implanted in people’s arms to measure their metabolism throughout the day. The possibilities are almost endless and it will depend on the telecom companies how they want to position themselves to use these capabilities.
Finally, many telecom companies are already getting actively involved in the world of hyper-immersive reality. After all, the purpose of a telecom company is for people to connect with other people around the world. If you extend this so that people can communicate as if they were together in person, you are basically cutting through distance and this is a huge disruption. In this case, the positioning of telecom companies worldwide is very different, as are their investments in the different layers. But, it’s absolutely an area where they can become important players if they choose to take advantage of it and use it well.