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London and the 5G revolution – major player or a pawn in the connectivity game?

By: Caroline Puygrenier

Whether you’re a tech whizz or Joe Bloggs, chances are that over the past few months, you’ve spotted ‘5G’ peppered across every broadsheet, tabloid and online news outlet. While some reportage has erred on the side of scaremongering, there’s no doubt that 5G is set to provide us all with an unprecedented level of speed and connectivity.

To date, the Western World is losing the 5G arms race to its East Asian counterparts. South Korea already boasts one million people subscribed to a 5G mobile contract. Ernst and Young has boldly proclaimed China as the innovation leader for the technology, with Huawei set to launch its first 5G phone later this year. Meanwhile, in Europe we’re only just scratching the surface on 5G deployments and roll-outs.

With that said, what’s London’s role in the 5G revolution? As an important city for global trade, commerce, technological and economical development, will London propel the UK forward in the race for superior speed? Or will it become a mere pawn in the connectivity game?

Interxion and Tech London Advocates talk 5G

In July, Interxion and Tech London Advocates hosted a roundtable at the Devonshire Club in London to explore exactly this. Brought together under Chatham House Rules, the attendees – all stakeholders from a variety of businesses in the finance, engineering, telecoms, infrastructure and technology sectors – pondered the big question and offered up interesting perspectives on how London can elbow its way into the 5G conversation.

Getting geared up on 5G

One attendee rightly reminded the room that, every time there’s a new ‘G’ round the corner, we get excited. But then 10 years on, we look back and reflect on the real impact of the technology. Was it worth the fuss? There’s clearly a lot of hype around how quickly 5G will allow us to connect and transact with one another. To put it into context, a Skype call currently takes an average of 200 milliseconds to travel to one endpoint and then back. Compare that to human, face-to-face interactions, which take around 10 milliseconds. With 5G expected to reduce latency to around 1 millisecond, the technology is going to connect people as if they were in person. Once people get a taste for it, there’s no return. But with low latency comes more bandwidth requirements, which means more spectrum, more antennae, more street furniture and a flexible architecture, powered by the cloud.

Challenges and opportunities

Unfortunately, there’s no killer app or use case for 5G, which is a challenge in itself when trying to sell the benefits to both the general public and those involved in its development. It’s bold to say ‘build it and they will come’ but this precarious position means operators are less motivated and can’t see a clear model to take advantage of 5G.

Looking to London more specifically, and the city poses a host of logistical challenges for the roll-out of 5G. London boasts 33 planning authorities, making it one of the more difficult places in the UK to deploy infrastructure at scale due to the sheer amount of red tape to cut through. One of the event attendees also pointed out that around 30% of London’s base stations are not suitable for 5G, which means that if we want to make 5G a reality in the UK’s capital, a more collaborative infrastructure is needed.

The role of the data centre in 5G

It’s clear that the roll out of 5G isn’t as simple as switching it on and letting it work. There are a number of questions that still need to be answered before we have a clearer picture of what 5G means for London, and the rest of the UK. Where will the intelligence and data sit within the network? If we don’t get this right, we’ll have the same problems (coverage, latency, security, etc) as we currently have with 4G and the networks that came before it. The supply chain is also more complicated, and will rely on more software than ever before. But how will this supply chain work and who will control it?

It’s going to take some time and experimentation before we get definitive answers to these questions, but what we do know is that data centres are poised to play a crucial role in the operation of 5G. It’s likely that we’ll see a battle between who owns content and who delivers it to the end-user – cloud service providers, mobile network operators and content owners will all be working out where they fit in the value chain and how they can profit from the next wave of connectivity. As data centres bring all of these players together in one community, this will enable network operators to house their 5G networks on an open, carrier-neutral basis, encouraging collaboration between all of these companies.

Right now, there’s so much noise surrounding 5G and the public hasn’t been well-engaged as to the benefits it can bring. London clearly faces some challenges when it comes to harnessing the power of 5G, but these are challenges that can be addressed from collaboration from all potential players, transparency on what they can bring to the table, and what they can expect to deliver. But will London compete on a global level? It remains to be seen.