Emerging business models and technologies for supporting greater 5G roll-out in UK rural areas

Emerging business models and technologies for supporting greater 5G roll-out in UK rural areas

The 5G Rural Challenge

Encouraging mobile 5G service deployments beyond major towns and cities into rural areas remains a difficult challenge for the UK regulatory bodies and Government departments such as Ofcom and DCMS (Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport). Both are exploring ways in which to overcome the primary obstacles to wider mobile 5G rural roll-out.

At first glance – the MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) position on this appears straightforward. MNOs can’t justify the up-front capital investment and ongoing operating costs necessary for building and supporting unprofitable 5G RAN* infrastructures to extend 5G services into rural areas. The ongoing operational costs for maintaining extended radio networks – i.e. multiple radio towers to reach remote areas – for significantly fewer subscribers are simply too high to justify a reasonable ROI (Return On Investment). This is due in part to the core software licensing costs, radio antenna equipment, networking hardware, site acquisition/planning applications/install/management, electrical power delivery, service maintenance plus the guaranteed high-bandwidth backhaul internet connectivity that every 5G customer will expect. An MNO’s project management costs alone could eat into any anticipated ROI when you consider the relatively low subscriber level opportunity that would exist compared to a densely populated town or city.

People living, working or visiting rural areas across the UK – hoping to benefit from 5G – would only achieve the promise of ultrafast connectivity based upon their proximity to the nearest 5G-enabled radio tower/base station. The issue with high data rate 5G implementations, in comparison to 4G and older generations of mobile wireless systems, is that they operate at much shorter ranges compared to older 4G based cellular technologies. This is because these types of 5G radio frequencies are mmWave (millimetre wave) that don’t travel long distances or deal very well with rural obstacles – e.g. hills, valleys and trees. Theoretically, thousands of brand new outdoor cell sites will be necessary for wider UK rural coverage; meaning MNO captial and operating costs would amplify exponentially due to this 5G distance vs. performance ratio challenge.

If the UK is seriously committed to better digital inclusivity for all and wider 5G rural roll-out then perhaps what we need here are new economic and deployment models; a level of Government intervention encouraging infrastructure sharing, innovative network design and open access for new market entrants (Neutral 5G hosts or new ‘Mini-MNOs’?); whilst continuing to encourage commercial investment and partnering between the MNOs (O2, Vodafone, Three and EE).

Geo-fenced 5G wireless networks used for ‘last mile’ connectivity in selected areas is likely to be one of the most cost-effective approaches to 5G rural roll-out. This might be facilitated by increased radio tower site-sharing agreements and technical collaboration between competing MNOs and FWA (Fixed Wireless Access) operators in order for Gigabit internet backhaul to be relayed much greater distances via a new network of networks.

Some of the options discussed in this article summarise information and ideas from other websites – so where applicable references to those sites are included.

*RAN (Radio Access Network) is the infrastructure, masts and antennae that telecom operators use to carry mobile traffic.

5G – The story so far

The 5th generation of mobile networking offers download speeds of over 1Gbps, exceptionally low latency (no perceived delays) and greater capacity – providing a massively improved online experience for users of mobile devices. Many industry experts claim that 5G should eventually deliver short-range speeds of 10Gbps. That’s 100 times faster than 4G speeds.

With improved mobile voice and video communications, 5G also means more effective and more secure remote working for home workers and staff on the move. Often referred to as the ‘network of networks’, 5G is much more flexible and versatile than 3G and 4G. That means robust wi-fi connectivity, not just for mobile communications devices, but for all kinds of smart technology, from cars and home appliances to streetlights, transport systems and healthcare apps.

5G National Roll-out

The 5G networks roll-out started in early-2019 and 5G is already available in a number of towns and cities across the UK. Widespread national coverage is expected within the next few years.

The MNOs (Mobile Network Operators)

EE (part of BT), Vodafone and Three launched their initial 5G offerings in major cities, with a range of plans, including unlimited data options. As of June 2020, O2 have expanded their 5G network coverage to 60 towns and cities and have setup trials with major UK businesses including Network Rail and Northumbrian Water Group to help build the 5G economy.

4G LTE Advanced Pro (also known as Gigabit LTE)

Gigabit LTE acts as the bridge to 5G – an evolutionary migration from 4G to 5G mobile networks over time. 5G encompasses Gigabit LTE (4G LTE Advanced), 5G New Radio (NR) and a new 5G Core (5GCN) – supported by a transport and core architectural evolution to deliver greater performance and enhanced service capabilities.

Two generations of technologies are going to be closely integrated together by the operators. Both 4G LTE Advanced Pro and the higher specification 5G will offer the possibility of higher connectivity speed and capacity, lower latency and importantly new possibilities in IoT (Internet of Things).

LTE Advanced Pro incorporates several new technologies associated with 5G, such as 256-QAM, Massive MIMO, LTE-Unlicensed (uses Wi-Fi spectrum to take the load of the mobile network) and LTE IoT that allow evolution of existing networks into supporting the 5G standard.

3G - Up to 42Mbps Download Speeds (typical max: 8Mbps) 0
4G LTE - Up to 150Mbps Download Speeds (typical max: 15Mbps) 0
4G LTE Advanced - Up to 979Mbps Download Speeds (typical max: 90Mbps) 0
4G LTE Advanced Pro - Up to 3Gbps Download (typical max: 200Mbps*) 0
5G - Up to 1Gbps or 10Gbps Download Speeds (typical max: 220Mbps**) 0

Infrastructure Sharing

Pros

Cost and risk reduction: capital and operating costs shared
Faster time-to-market: exploiting existing site infrastructures
Proven model: building on past joint-venture relationships

Cons

Service differentiation difficult: competing on cost more than service
Maintaining quality of service: shared infrastructure SLA challenges

SRN (Shared Rural Network) – 4G first then hopefully 5G later?

Telefónica (O2), Vodafone, EE and Three now share access on each other’s masts to improve connectivity and competition in rural areas – albeit not using 5G technology. In March 2020 their jointly-owned company Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited agreed to invest £532m in new 4G radio coverage where there is currently only coverage from at least one but not all operators (partial not-spots).

This investment as also backed by more than £500 million of DCMS funding – to eliminate total not-spots by building new masts in hard-to-reach areas where there is currently no coverage from any operator; areas that were not commercially viable for them to build network infrastructure.

Don’t automatically assume that the MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) consider 5G as a full-replacement of 4G. For the foreseeable future 5G adds another service layer to their network so they can provide more capacity in the busiest UK towns and cities.

Existing Infrastructure Sharing agreements between MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) – a proven model

a) Cornerstone: O2 and Vodafone developed a joint network, dividing the UK into two geographic zones outside London (East and West). London is treated differently and is divided north to south for 4G technology. Within each territory, one operator is the ‘host’, owning and operating the sites used by both companies. The arrangements involve both passive sharing (within London) and active sharing (in the rest of the UK). The resulting shared network has consolidated traffic over a reduced number of sites. Both operators maintain their own core networks.

b) MBNL: Three and EE (BT) share nationally passive infrastructure for most of their network technology and have shared active elements of their 3G network. The two operators maintain their separate core networks.

LTE Advanced Pro – co-siting opportunities for the 4G to 5G evolution

LTE-Advanced Pro (also known as LTE-A Pro, Gigabit LTE, 4G Evolution, 4G Evo, 4.5G, 4.5G Pro, 4.9G, Pre-5G, 5G Project) is the next-generation cellular standard following LTE Advanced (LTE-A) and supports data rates in excess of 3 Gbps. It also introduces the concept of LAA (License Assisted Access) plus ‘eLLA’ an enhanced LLA catering for uploads, which allows sharing of licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Thanks to LAA operators can reduce Gigabit-capable LTE’s need for licensed spectrum to as little as 10 MHz by aggregating unlicensed spectrum. LAA small cells also offer site sharing opportunities to achieve significant 5G NR mmWave coverage and to reduce operating costs.

The Rural Roaming threat has passed

In September 2019, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) published an inquiry into the rural challenges of gaining access to superfast broadband, 4G and accessing online services. This EFRA report recommended a “rural roaming” solution to tackle partial “not-spots” in mobile coverage in the absence of the forthcoming SRN (Shared Rural Network) agreement between Government and the Mobile Network Operators.

Ofcom published advice to Government saying that rural wholesale access (otherwise known as roaming) would involve operators allowing customers to roam onto one another’s networks in rural areas. In theory it could improve coverage by 2-3 percentage points for the holders of the 700 MHz coverage obligations and by 5-10 percentage for the other mobile network operators. Taken together with Ofcom’s proposed coverage obligations it could result in customers of all four operators getting coverage in around 90% of the UK.

What might have been considered a threat to MNOs from the UK Government, in legislating rural wholesale access, appears to have evaporated after the SRN deal was officially signed in March 2020.

Building Neutral Host Infrastructures

Derived from an original source: TechUK

What is a neutral host infrastructure? A neutral host infrastructure comprises a single, shared network solution provided on an open access basis to all MNOs and is used to resolve poor wireless coverage and capacity. They are usually deployed, maintained and operated by a third-party provider and they are designed to support the full range of MNO technologies.

Unlike vertically integrated networks that accommodate one technology or a single MNO’s requirement, neutral host infrastructure is a shared platform, capable of supporting all MNOs and technologies giving their customers what they are looking for – seamless coverage and high capacity. A variety of different neutral host approaches are used to provide premium wireless services in different environments, such as Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and Small Cells Networks (SCN). Typically fibre-fed, these networks are designed specifically to cope with periods of peak user demand and scaled to accommodate future generations of technology, including 5G.

Collaborating with Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) service providers

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is an established means of providing high-speed internet access to homes and businesses using modern wireless network technologies rather than only using fixed lines such as copper telephone lines or fibre. A fibre-optic ‘backhaul’ can be extended wirelessly over many miles to isolated properties – so that they receive the same levels of connectivity that better-connected towns and cities currently experience.

Hundreds of UK-based Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) currently operate on existing radio tower infrastructures and building-mounted base stations to provide their customers with Gigabit-capable broadband services; usually over unlicensed Ofcom radio spectrum. The WISPs generally supply broadband to rural areas where the UK national broadband providers (e.g. BT, Virgin, TalkTalk, Sky, etc.), satellite broadband companies or MNO mobile broadband fails to reach at all or provide adequate upload/download broadband speeds.

The benefits of Fixed Wireless Access technology are rapid-deployment by WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider) network engineers and in many scenarios, contrary to some less-informed industry commentators – see https://5g.co.uk/guides/what-is-5g-fixed-wireless-access-fwa/ – FWA can offer faster broadband performance and lower latencies than many FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet) services available in UK towns and cities.

The better FWA providers ensure that high-speed leased-line fibre internet feeds their network of radio towers and base stations (ideally 1Gbps and above if the provider offers broadband access to hundreds of rural subscription customers). The key requirement of all FWA installations is that buildings and trees must be avoided in the signal path – so there is clear LOS (Line of Sight) between the antenna installed externally to the customer’s property and the nearest tower/base station that the antenna points towards – otherwise the radio signal can be blocked and broadband performance can be severely hampered.

Modern fibre broadband connections are considered the ideal choice of course – but in general the fibre infrastructure companies prefer to lay fibre in densely populated areas like towns and cities where thousands of properties can be fed from a core fibre network – as they can getter a higher ROI (Return on Investment) by avoiding rural areas.

In theory – if 5G FWA coverage becomes available in a chosen rural area – then it won’t require a network engineer to visit each broadband subscriber’s property to install an outdoor fixed wireless antenna. The 5G FWA operators will provide a CPE (Customer Premises Equipment) which can quickly self-installed by the subscriber.

5G FWA roll-out may be developed by mobile network operators to include more rural areas around the UK. In this scenario the operators may need to investigate faster ‘time-to-market’ strategies; one of which may include fostering commercial relationships with smaller incumbent rural FWA providers to capitalise on their existing radio tower locations, customer-base and Gigabit backhaul connectivity. As one might expect – the rural WISPs are likey to have some useful telco infrastructure and established customer-relationships to help promote their next generation 5G broadband services to.

Evolution versus Revolution

Pros

Faster time-to-market: Site upgrades are quicker than new site deployments
Lower upgrade costs: Older 2G/3G infrastructure can be repurposed
Lower coverage expansion costs: Deploying small cells and distributed antennas

Cons

5G industry slow-down: ‘Real 5G’ services roll-outs are delayed
Legacy 4G customers affected: 4G speeds may decrease to favour 5G-paying customers

Phased roll-out on existing 4G-based networks

There are two described options for a Mobile Network Operators core network to roll-out 5G New Radio*.

* 5G NR is the new radio standard interface offering data rates higher than 1Gbps. It’s more efficient, meaning it can transmit more data in the same amount of spectrum, as well as utilise more spectrum at once. It was defined in the 3GPP standard in December 2017.

Non Stand Alone (5G NSA): Existing 4G core networks are utilised to support 5G services, with only minor changes expected for the current core networks already operated the MNOs. NSA 5G can provide Superfast speeds (eMBB & FWA). In theory the Shared Rural Network project (above) might include deployments of 5G NSA based solutions to reduce the capital costs of projects.

Stand Alone (5G SA): The second phase of the newer 5G Core (5GC) is how 5G SA is introduced. This architecture is an end-to-end 5G network solution so it requires a lot of spectrum for optimum delivery from the operator’s core network to individual customer devices (operators needs coverage, capacity and high-throughput). It introduces more flexibility and functionality because it is a service-based architecture – based on all new 5G radio network technologies linked to a cloud-computing based 5G Core (5GC) in data centres.

Low-power Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and Small Cells Networks (SCN)

Derived from an original source: Data Center Frontier

Macro-cell towers, small cells and distributed antenna systems – are antennas which can be mounted on utility poles, buildings and street furniture. Smaller 5G antenna deployments at the edge of the network in rural locations (will still require Gigabit-backhaul connectivity to the 5G core networks) are less likely to fall foul of rural planning rules and regulations because they will have less impact on the environment; from both a power-output and aesthetical perspective.

For example – small cells strategically placed around a village could help to increase network density very quickly without requiring larger radio-base-station or radio-tower deployments. They operate at shorter-range allowing wireless systems to support more users and faster speeds. “Small cells” is an umbrella term for several types of low-power antennas (including femtocells, picocells and microcells) and they are typically dedicated to a single carrier.

These 5G antennas are designed to transmit in the part of the spectrum between microwaves and infrared waves. This spectrum is less crowded than lower frequencies used by mobile phones, but there are trade-offs. At higher frequencies, signals are not as strong and experience interference from walls and trees. The solution is to set up smaller antennas everywhere – on light posts, telephone polls, traffic lights, rooftops, and throughout the interiors of buildings.

Legislative and Regulatory Reform

Frequencies: Licensed, Shared Licensed and Unlicensed Spectrum

The choice of mobile 5G frequencies across the UK’s radio spectrum is critical when it comes to delivering fast and reliable data uploads and downloads. 5G has the capability to deliver ultrafast mobile broadband speeds by using much higher frequency ranges, for example 6GHz to 100GHz. However the coverage and indoor penetration at these higher frequencies is much weaker over distance in comparison to the longer-range capacity and building penetration potential of lower frequency 4G mobile broadband technologies. This trade-off can be countered by deploying more radio infrastructure across a given geographical area, thereby improving the network performance of 5G for subscribers.

Spectrum Sharing
Vodafone becomes first UK company to share unused 4G spectrum to extend mobile broadband in rural areas. Vodafone promoted the efficient use of radio spectrum under a three-year agreement with the company StrattoOpencell. This was possible for the first-time following Ofcom’s decision in July 2019 to allow mobile operators to share spectrum. StrattoOpencell uses the spectrum to provide broadband services to users at a holiday site in Devon through the deployment of 4G outdoor small cells.

Spectrum Selling
The telecoms regulator Ofcom faces a new legal challenge from O2 on the next 5G spectrum auction as it plans to sell twenty-four separate lots of 5MHz for £20m in the 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum. O2 is demanding Ofcom groups the blocks of 5MHz together rather than split them up for sale individually. From a technical perspective – 5G works better when it is spread across a 100MHz (or higher) block of contiguous spectrum frequency.

Spectrum Innovation
Ofcom has made 5G spectrum available to stimulate innovation in the UK – including to help facilitate the development of 5G products and services. In order to support 5G research and development, the low-cost 5G Ofcom Innovation and Trials licences allow:

  • Access to any frequency band (subject to coordination and availability)
  • Quick, inexpensive access to radio spectrum for wireless tests, with licences costing from £50
  • The ability to run trial scenarios involving consumers, to help build an understanding of how 5G services could be used

Planning Regulations
According to Delivering Gigabit Britain: Broadband for all (an independent report by Assembly Research);

Mobile, planning and landlord disputes are slowing down and raising the cost of 5G rollouts and in some instances are incentivising operators to deploy lower spec 5G. Currently, all 5G site upgrades require full planning or constitute a permitted development requiring prior approval. Both of these take between 56 and 86 days for decisions to be made and local planning authorities can refuse planning after a public consultation on a wide range of factors. What is required are automatic planning approval for 5G site upgrades and expedited legal progress to resolve landlord disputes

Government funding for 5G must have specific coverage targets for rural areas
According to Ofcom, commenting in a parliamentary special report on EFRA’s Update on Rural Connectivity – the UK Government acknowledges digital connectivity as a utility service. Ofcom believes rural communities therefore both need and deserve to have the same level of coverage as that experienced in urban areas, so they can run productive businesses and enjoy family life. Ofcom formally made this recommendation to the Commons Select Committee…

The roll-out of new technologies such as full-fibre and 5G mobile data represent an opportunity for a step change, but also a risk that rural areas are left further behind. Therefore, in addition to national coverage targets, the Government should set specific targets for reducing the urban rural divide and put in place the investment to achieve them.

Supply Chain and Services Fragmentation

Service Oriented Architectures for a 5G future?

Service-Oriented architecture (SOA) is a software development model that allows services to communicate across different platforms and languages to form applications. In SOA, a service is a self-contained unit of software designed to complete a specific task. Service-Oriented architecture allows various services to communicate using a loose coupling system to either pass data or coordinate an activity. The following examples of 5G technological developments can be described as service components within a 5G SOA model – something that is already developing in Service-Oriented 5G Core Networks.

Network Slicing

Network Slicing has been positioned as a 5G technology differentiator, but it can be applied to 4G LTE. The concept is that dedicated virtual networks that are tailored to different services or customers using a common network infrastructure. Network Slicing can enable new business models, and in some cases, entire ecosystems which bring new players to the 5G mobile value chain.

Derived from an original source: sdxcentral

5G NFV* will permit a physical network to be separated, i.e. ‘sliced’, into multiple virtual networks that can support different radio access networks (RANs – see below) or various types of services for certain customer segments. Network slicing will play a crucial role in 5G networks because of the multitude of use cases and new services 5G will support. A primary 5G NFV network slicing use case will be more powerful mobile broadband with lower latency, but it will also lead to great benefits in bandwidth, mobility, resiliency, security, and availability. Future 5G networks will offer operators the flexibility to allocate speed, capacity, and coverage in logical slices according to the demands of each use case.

*Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) refers to the replacement of network functions on dedicated appliances—such as routers, load balancers and firewalls with virtualised instances running as software on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware.

Telecom Infra Project – End to End Network Slicing (E2E-NS) – Use Case: Fixed Wireless Rural Broadband – Project providing a real-world framework for extending fixed wireless coverage to underserved, remote and rural communications. Allows the carrier to extend “fibre-over-the-air” QoE to customers areas un-served by terrestrial networks with definable slices, greatly expanding subscriber footprint & gaining flexibility over consumer & enterprise services. Leveraging slice-enabled fixed wireless transmitters leveraging high performance fibre backhaul, the PoC (proof of Concept) will demonstrate an improved user experience via assured slices catered to different users and apps within the home (e.g. gaming & OTT).

wdt_ID ECOSYSTEM PLAYER BUSINESS TYPE
1 Application Provider Drive service providers and network providers to use slices to deliver services that meet specific application needs and KPIs/SLAs, allowing the application provider to distinguish their own service in the market.
2 Consumer-focussed Service Provider Consume slices on their own network to deliver their own services; tune & optimise the slice resources to innovate with next generation services in the market.
3 Network Wholesaler As one potential segment of an E2Eslice, provide capabilities such as Slice-as-a-Service, sliceable backhaul/transport networks, orchestration & assurance APIs, metrics & analytics, to help their customers deliver what is needed.
4 Integrator Offer to integrate sub-slices from different network segments/providers together, and integrate those to external network domains/cloud providers.
5 Enterprise Provider Use the flexibility of slicing to tailor solutions to meet the needs of specific businesses or vertical market customers; to help those customers identify the right network connectivity solution (at the right quality & reliability) needed within their larger solution context.

Source: Network Slicing Ecosystem Players

3GPP has defined four network slice types. 3GPP network slicing enables specialisation of offered services on the same shared infrastructure. These network slices have been categorised into different types according to the abstraction of characteristics of the services they facilitate. Source: ATIS.

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Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)

This slice supports mobile broadband applications such as streaming high-quality video, fast large-file transfer and real-time gaming.

Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC)

This slice type includes applications that require very high reliability and are extremely sensitive to latency, including autonomous driving, drones, augmented/virtual reality and public safety.

massive Internet of Things (mIoT)

High density of heterogeneous devices with massive connectivity requirements sending small data packets not sensitive to latency - e.g. smart cities, smart grids, intelligent agriculture and other services where networks need to support massive equipment access.

V2X

This slice is customized for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) services. High-bandwidth, low latency and highly reliable communication between a broad range of transport and traffic-related sensors.

Virtualisation (vRAN – virtual Radio Access Network)

In scenarios where 5G operators are considering small-scale targeted deployments – perhaps to offer a new 5G services in a rural area – a business case can potentially be justified if a vRAN infrastructure is available. 5G service trials will be made possible by vRANs without the usual long-term operational and financial commitment to building and deploying an entire radio access network ‘stack’ at a specific geographical location that links back to central ‘core’ locations of the MNO (Mobile Network Operator).

Traditional RANs used by mobile network operators are based upon a centralised architecture – designed to work almost flawlessly on custom-built hardware as part of a pre-integrated, tightly-managed, ‘end-to-end’ system – usually only supplied and supported from a limited number of international vendors. They operate efficient data centres at the ‘core’ – managing the transport of data and voice traffic between all the ‘edge’ components (endpoints that communicate across the radio access network).

A decentralised virtual RAN architecture is quite the opposite – highly flexible and very configurable – so it requires additional system integration efforts and costs that need to be considered. The evolution of 5G networks means each new release has brought enhanced capabilities including supporting more spectrum, additional frequency bands, as well as air interface enhancements in performance and efficiency. vRAN offers improved functionality and security – enabling the delivery of new services and features such as Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality and augmented reality applications.

Virtual RAN workloads can run on a general-purpose computing architecture based on processors such as x86 central processing units (CPUs) combined with GPU-accelerated platforms – this type of server-based computing is beneficial in terms of cost, storage and operational efficiencies.

Open Radio Access Networks (OpenRAN)

OpenRAN (radio access network) is a different approach to building mobile voice and data networks – making technologies from different companies work together whilst reducing complexity and costs. OpenRAN can be implemented on vendor-neutral hardware (increasingly virtualised – see ‘vRAN’) and software-defined technology based on open interfaces and community-developed standards, some of which are licence-cost free. 5G Operators and the UK Government will need to consider supporting OpenRAN initiatives if they want to realise the vision of building affordable shared 5G networks to close the digital divide between rural and urban communities.

Source: Vodafone

The global supply of telecom network equipment has become concentrated in a small handful of companies over the past few years. More choice of suppliers will safeguard the delivery of services to all mobile customers, increase flexibility and innovation and, crucially, can help address some of the cost challenges that are holding back the delivery of internet services to rural communities and remote places across the world.

Vodafone initiated the first European trials of OpenRAN in the UK and may extend to more of its markets on the continent. Vodafone also initiated trials of the technology to enable more consumers in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Mozambique – which have largely rural communities and are near the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index – to make mobile calls and to access data. The trial sites across the three countries provides 2G, 3G and 4G services, with 5G possible over OpenRAN in the future.

Software Defined Networking (SDN)

Traditional networking is split across multiple separate appliances (e.g. computers, routers and switches) linked by copper or fibre cable connections that forward the flow of data from one end to another.

SDN (Software Defined Networking) replaces the traditional, discovery-based creation of forwarding tables inside those appliances (e.g. switches and router hardware) with centrally controlled forwarding, meaning that a centralised controller application manages each device’s forwarding table. In a 5G SDN this means that the central control points completely rule how an MNO’s 5G network can be segmented or virtualised –  i.e. how different data traffic types (which includes voice) are managed, forwarded or stored anywhere across a 5G network and even beyond.

The open source software model has revolutionised the way that software is developed, delivered and paid for. Open-source 5G telecommunications apps and services can be freely downloaded as virtual machines then ‘powered-up’ on readily available COTS (Commercial off-the-shelf) computers – or hosted on virtual servers based in third-party cloud data centres. These apps can be virtual network devices (NVF*) that replace dedicated physical appliances or enterprise-class SDN controllers.

The result is an intelligent, virtualised, customisable, low-footprint 5G network that will enable its operators to innovate – both in day-to-day operations and in designing new service offerings. These 5G network operators and 5G data-centres  – capable of providing network capacity and throughput – will be able to instantly deliver newly connected services on-demand – enabling new business models that drive revenue growth whilst improving operational efficiencies.

Note: Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) refers to the replacement of network functions on dedicated appliances—such as routers, load balancers and firewalls with virtualised instances running as software on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware.

Alternative voice (and data) services over mobile IP networks

Dual-SIM and eSIMs

Electronic SIM cards (eSIMs) essentially remove the need to have both a physical SIM card and also a SIM slot in a 5G-capable device. New smartphones are now available on the market that only support eSIMs – whilst others provide both eSIM support alongside a standard SIM (basically a substitute for a second SIM).

The use of eSIMs brings a number of advantages to 5G Neutral Host Networks – the implications for 5G network operators that provide, for example a Rural 5G Broadband service, is that their subscriber base can chose to pay for a mainstream MNO voice/data network provider (e.g. O2, Vodafone, EE/BT, Three) and also utilise a local 5G mobile broadband service – that may offer better coverage options and/or low-cost data plans. This is all possible from a single device that supports Dual-SIM or eSIMs. Rapid service activation is achievable with eSIMs because there are no postage overheads or supply-chain delays – potentially bringing new-entrants to the 5G mobile value chain.

VoLTE over 4G LTE

Voice over LTE (VoLTE) is an IP-based data transmission technology that delivers both call and data services over a 4G network. Once VoLTE is enabled, you can make calls while accessing the Internet. If your phone supports dual SIM dual VoLTE, you can receive an incoming call on a SIM card even when the other SIM card is already on a call.

5G RuralFirst, led by Cisco and lead partner University of Strathclyde, delivered testbeds and trials to exploit 5G benefits for rural communities and industries like agriculture, broadcasting, and utilities. One of the 5G RuralFirst projects was utilising 4G VoLTE to enable mobile phone calls between inhabitants of the Orkney Islands under a successful Neutral Host service that did not rely upon any infrastructure operated by the UK MNOs.

Wi-Fi Calling over local and wide area wireless networks – 5G eMBB (enhanced Mobile Broadband)?

Wi-Fi calling already enables smartphone users to make and receive calls over a local wireless internet connection as opposed to a typical cellular mobile network connection. The MNOs have the capability to block Wi-Fi calling so subscribers need to check if they have the right pay monthly consumer or business mobile phone contract in place that permits voice calling over the internet.

Note: Wi-Fi calling without any restriction isn’t generally available to Pay As You Go mobile phone users. It’s normally available to Pay Monthly Consumer and Business customers that use compatible devices and services. Also, for commercial reasons most of the MNO’s will deduct each Wi-Fi based phone call duration from monthly minutes that are provided under their mobile phone contracts with subscribers.

With reference to eSIMs (see above) it is technically feasible that 5G Neutral Host Network providers offering rural eMBB (enhanced Mobile Broadband) services could offer their customer-base a much better quality of service for voice calls across their data network on an eSIM (for example in remote rural areas that suffer from no mobile signal at all). In theory this could support ‘WiFi Calling’ under a simple/low-cost geographically-fenced data plan that compliments a traditional MNO’s 4G mobile phone contract.