5G, and the Future of Service Delivery

Brenden Rawle

For so long, 5G has been a far-off concept, surrounded by buzz words and quite frankly, confusion. Now, we’re beginning to move beyond the hype, to concrete action: In the UK, BT was the first to launch, with commercial 5G services on EE’s network in six UK cities announced on May 30. It will soon be followed by Vodafone on July 3. Of course, other networks won’t be far behind.

As 5G becomes a reality, the question on everyone’s lips is, what will we gain? Greatly increased speed is perhaps its most obvious attribute, with network speeds of up to 20 times faster than today’s 4G. At top speed, it would take 3.6 seconds to download a two-hour movie instead of six minutes via 4G and 26 hours with 3G. Improvements like this will catch most people’s attention.

However, 5G is not simply a faster version of 4G. One of its most common early uses will also be to increase mobile network capacity by a factor of up to 100 – the telecoms industry refers to this as enhanced mobile broadband or, more commonly, EMBB. This ‘densification’ of the cellular network will allow more people to consume immense amounts of bandwidth simultaneously, in close proximity to each other, without suffering degradation of service. This is important as the more bandwidth is available, the more ways we find to consume it (as many industries show).

5G is also being used, in Switzerland and the USA for example, to provide fixed wireless access (FWA), or ‘air fibre’, in places where it would be too costly or difficult to deploy actual fibre to premises. A prime example of this is the recent 5G deployment from US telecoms company C Spire, who launched a 5mm wave service across 84 homes in Mississippi, giving residents download speeds of up to 750 Megabits per second (Mbps), upload speeds of up to 600 Mbps and latency as low as 8 milliseconds. Innovation such as this is, of course, greatly beneficial to individuals, businesses and industries alike.

Latency matters

Another key attribute worthy of mention is 5G’s ultra-low latency (ULL) – which is expected to get down to around 1 millisecond – compared with 4G’s 50 milliseconds. This has big implications for many applications.

Perhaps the most obvious, given 5G’s initial use in EMBB and FWA, is interactive gaming, where players compete against each other in real time, with any delay a serious handicap. 5G presents a huge opportunity for the gaming market – it will not only allow people living in rural areas with sluggish download speeds to compete at the highest level, it will also be the catalyst needed for cloud gaming to hit the main stream.

5G’s biggest shake-up

The biggest difference though, between 5G and previous generations of mainstream mobile network technology, is that it is designed to connect machines to machines, as well as to connect people. And this machine-to-machine connectivity, or Internet of Things (IoT) market, will dwarf the communications sector as we know it, connecting many billions of devices.

5G’s capabilities will change the way enterprises work in two fundamental ways. Firstly, companies will generate unprecedented amounts of data that can, and need to be moved quickly.

Let’s take the application that arguably has most caught the public’s imagination – self-driving or autonomous cars – as an example. It will be years before they are a mainstream commercial reality, but ultimately, these vehicles should prove safer than human drivers. To be safe, they need to ‘see’, interpret and act on what is happening around them, immediately, to avoid collisions.

To achieve this, multiple devices including cameras and sensors will be used inside vehicles as well outside, on street furniture, buildings and more. They will generate staggering amounts of data, every single second. This constant ‘vehicle to everything’ communication is referred to as V2X. That data needs to be collected, collated, processed and analysed in real time (to ensure safety), as well as stored securely. And the only way this can be done is through automation – handling all those events and the associated data is light years beyond human capabilities.

Automation is governed and constantly improved by artificial intelligence (AI), such as machine learning and deep learning, which we sometimes forget is designed and ultimately controlled by humans. As Jose Manuel de Arce, Deputy Director OSS/BSS & Infrastructure at TelefónicaInternational Wholesale Services, put it[1], “AI is about working with data and doing with it, what humans would do, without the errors and faster”.

The second enterprise shift to note, is the need for collaboration in order to maximise gains from technological advances. Just think how many parties will need to be involved in making autonomous cars possible – see the schematic below.

Other potential use cases for 5G can be seen across global industries, and include more highly automated factories that can be reconfigured much faster to run as efficiently as possible. Remote health monitoring could save the NHS billions and keep people out of hospital and more comfortable at home. Outside broadcasting won’t need huge transmission cables and power sources to stream video from cameras, or such big crews on the ground, making it greener and opening up many more venues to broadcasting opportunities. To a greater or lesser extent, they all require collaboration from multiple parties, in what is essentially an industry ecosystem – driving innovation and progress in that particular sector.

Software-defined ecosystems

Working in ecosystems means that data, and the parties that generate it, need software-defined interconnection (SDI) to interact in real time, to support sophisticated applications. It is no exaggeration to say that 5G will make data centers, and the interconnection happening within their walls, increasingly vital to the global economy – they will act as the hubs through which the world’s most valuable information passes, and on which the digital economy itself is built.

While 5G technologies are initially being deployed in the radio access network (RAN) space, the set-up will ultimately have to undergo profound changes. To power a range of new services and use cases, many of which we haven’t thought of yet, 5G needs to work in conjunction with other developments underway in the world of the Network Service Provider (NSP).

Equinix can help NSPs rearchitect the network behind the RAN, providing services almost instantly and at scale. For example, Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric (ECX Fabric™), directly, securely and dynamically connects distributed infrastructure and digital ecosystems globally on Platform Equinix®. Customers can manage and scale their solution via the ECX Fabric portal in near real-time, and this type of self-service model is what IT practitioners have come to expect, and require in this increasingly fast-paced digital economy – greatly improving speed to market of new services is a must for businesses looking to survive digital disruption.

Interestingly, as a 451 Research report “Interconnection Services Evolve with Software Programmable Interconnection”, published in March 2019, explains, SDI is itself evolving, moving to Software Programmable Interconnection (SPI). The report explains, “SPI applies the technologies behind software-defined networking and network virtualization – the ability to alter the network on demand – to the interconnection ecosystems that many data center providers have built or are planning. The endgame is a fabric that connects many data centers and makes them feel, to the end user, like one giant data center. It’s not hard to envision SPI eventually giving enterprises on-demand access to every major public cloud.”

This supports our view that SPI best fulfils its potential across a homogenous architecture like ECX Fabric, because NSPs, or indeed any other enterprise customers, only have to connect to ECX Fabric once to consume, partner and deliver services across clouds in real time.

Equinix’s application programming interface (API) strategy provides simple, standardised access to multiple clouds in strategic locations around the world, making integration with them most-efficient, and allowing NSPs to build sophisticated and secure multi-cloud solutions. This is further supported by our partnerships, for instance with Colt Technology Services. The joint proposition allows Equinix customers to benefit from ‘on demand’ connectivity services based on the Colt IQ Network, which is one of the first to connect on demand, pay-as-you-go capabilities into Equinix data centers in Europe. The setup allows customers to deploy and scale bandwidth requirements in near real-time, and also gain access to connectivity from enterprise buildings to the cloud.

Keep it together

Beyond being crucial for 5G and the new generation of mobile services, software defined services will transform various use cases and industries. 5G will act as a multiplier for network service providers and data providers by supporting massive leaps in device and consumer demand that will drive us towards a hyper-interconnected world. SDI will need to sit at the heart of this new world, providing the vital data capacity at a sufficiently high speed to keep digital ecosystems and the digital economy ticking.

Learn more about Equinix Cloud Exchange Fabric (ECX Fabric™) and how to establish new connections on demand via software-defined interconnection.

[1]AI and its Pivotal Role in Transforming Operations Trend Analysis Report, by Mark Newman, published by TM Forum, December 2018

Brenden Rawle
Brenden Rawle Director of Interconnection in EMEA