The Importance of Being 5G: an Interview with Ericsson’s Chief Technology Officer
And how 5G with Artificial Intelligence advances the industrial frontier
“For 30 years we have focused on consumers and now we’re looking to enterprises as they digitalize”
A message to businesses: 5G wireless networks are keeping the promise of ultra-high speed and capacity for data transfer. This is what the results of trials and very first deployments in Europe, the US and Asia are telling. The dramatically faster speed for downloading , gaming or VR are often mentioned first when talking about 5G, but 5G goes way beyond. Yes, a very low latency will allow musicians to play as a single orchestra from different continents, but the big 5G revolution — and I never use the word revolution lightly — lies in how it will transform production: in a fundamental and widespread way, also by giving a qualitative and quantitative push to the “network of everything”, the Internet of Things (IoT). In New York, at the Techonomy event, I had the opportunity to dive into the topic with CTO Erik Ekudden, the global mind for technology of Ericsson, the company that has been networking the world for over a hundred years.
▹ The Italian Version is here: Part 1 and Part 2
Businesses will be able to move many industrial processes onto the 5G network, saving companies the need to build their own infrastructure. They will need, however, to redesign the architecture of these processes and move forward in their digitalization if they’ll aim at making the most of 5G. How do companies get involved in the rollout?
We will be building on 4G footprints. 5G provides an enhanced capacity to the mobile broadband offering. 5G will provide a much higher capacity to support high definition video, such as richer UX with advanced AR and VR user interfaces. That is the main part of the 5G rollout in the business case, with about 1 billion 5G consumer subscriptions in five years’ time forecasted.
On top of that, there’s also the opportunity to use 5G for IoT and for more advanced enterprise use cases, like the ones we are working on in Italy. That will also be available by an upgrade to the same existing infrastructure, and in some cases it will also be complemented with new infrastructure, for example in harbors or where we are working with smart manufacturing or in agricultural examples. To cover those areas there will be new infrastructure built.
When you talk to businesses, what is the rational you offer for them to invest now in 5G technologies, rather than postponing investments, and be sure that what they will be buying will be the software and hardware approved at the end of the standardization process?
Since you build 5G by upgrading your 4G LTE base, today we are already providing the NR compatibility with existing products in the field, so that they can be upgraded to 5G NR with software or with hardware, in the case of new frequency bands. This is a commitment about migrating from the current 4G LTE base to being fully 5G NR compliant with the latest standards. Also, our new hardware — high-frequency bands, new frequency bands — is future-proof in terms of changes and completion of the standards.
Let’s talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning in 5G: how is the level at which a country adopts one technology going to impact the pace of adoption of the other?
I think they go hand-in-hand. We are applying artificial intelligence (AI ) or machine learning technologies to increase the efficiency of network operations. At Mobile World Congress 2018, and elsewhere, we showed how you can drastically automate the management of your network infrastructure in the operations part that is AI driven. We have shown the products we have — base stations and core networks — and how they have a significantly higher performance by using machine learning technologies to process the data in a close loop fashion to optimize the performance in the nodes.
I think 5G will benefit from all of this. You will have more of a self-driving network or self-optimizing network, and this is a big enhancement when it comes to UX, to flexibility, to efficiency and cost. 5G will be the most modern and AI-driven platform for any country, you will wonder what brought you to report earlier you ever wider industry and consumers. From that point of view, AI and 5G will be enablers for other sectors, because it is the most efficient and the most capable infrastructure that is available.
Are critical MTC and massive MTC evolving at the same pace?
We are exploring many of these more advanced use cases showing how we can digitalize complete factories and have smart manufacturing using 5G’s low latency characteristics — including the high band with high security and high reliability — all with a flexible installation in a new site. But what is equally important is that this technology has wide-area reach and global reach, so the massive IoT where you can connect sensors, fleets and things for tracking and tracing, all of that is actually happening now. This is where the networks providing slicing technologies, the cost-efficient core networks, the virtualized core networks and, as mentioned, the LTE category M and narrowband loT are already paving the way. Ericsson has around 50% of the world market, of the world deployment of massive IoT using narrowband IoT & Category M installation, so we are leading the deployment in terms of massive IoT around the world. And a lot of new use cases are being put to the test.
How difficult is the shift from the traditional very basic M2M sensor networks to IoT?
The great advantage is that, first of all, we have a technology that is globally scalable unlike for M2M, or short-range technologies in some cases, which were all local. When we talk about IoT, first you need the global access, which you get with LTE narrowband IoT Category M and with more advanced IoT use cases with 5G NR, but you also need a high- efficient virtualized core network that comes with the IoT. When you put all of this together, you have an IoT network platform which is different from M2M. It becomes a global platform with connectivity management, with device management and with security end to end from devices all the way through the network.
How does spectrum fit into this picture, as seemingly the regions of the world are pushing for the various bands in a inhomogeneous way?
5G brings many benefits. One is higher capacity and high-capacity requires wider bandwidths, and wider bandwidths naturally come with high-frequency bands. So going forward we will need frequency bands for 5G both in the high bands, the so-called millimeter waves or the 28, 37 and 39 GHz bands and in the midrange, which is below 6 GHz, because they give better coverage and also indoor performance. Then you will need low bands below 2 GHz to be upgradable to 5G as well. We provide products in all those frequency bands.
How do you approach the critical issue of security? Defense applications, industrial processes and mission critical MTC easily come to mind..
Security, as we know from 3G, 4G, IoT and now into 5G, must be built in from design. Once you standardize it, you implement it. You can’t add it afterwards, which is what typically happened with classic M2M and IoT systems. You have to have it built in. So security is part of 5G, as well as the previous standards. And on top of that, there are the security protocols, authentication mechanisms, tunnels and so forth that the standard requires. Ericsson is also providing additional security with products such as Ericsson Security Manager, which allows you to keep track of security, policy and privacy across an infrastructure, from the devices to the nodes, and all the way to your back-end cloud. So we have a very comprehensive security offering to support the network infrastructure whether it is critical infrastructure requirements or it’s for IoT applications that require the security.
Operators are pushing ahead, but what about the other stakeholders? Are any of them not coming on board as quickly as you would wish?
Not really. We have been fortunate to work with industry pilots now for many years since we launched 5G for Europe, for the US, for Asia, for Italy, etc. In all of these pilots, and we had many of them, the industries and the enterprises come to Ericsson asking how they can leverage the 5G infrastructure. So I think there is no pushback from that side. There is still some work to be done together with these industries on the new business models that require SLAs, and a higher performance than was previously possible to offer. Because for 30 years we have focused on consumers and now we’re looking to enterprises as they digitalize.
Operators are pushing ahead, but I think on the regulatory side of the government there’s still more work to be done to support 5G as a national interest, an infrastructure that can pave the way for the digitalization of the public sector, enterprises and consumers. So I would like to see more action on the government side at the national level pushing for spectrum availability, for mobile broadband coverage.
Talking of standards: Release 15 was achieved last year. Where are we as to standardization?
Ericsson has been a leader in standardization for a long time: over the last 20 years, we have contributed significantly in terms of mobile standards with approximately over 50,000 contributions. That’s more than other players. However, with 5G you also have global standards with contributions from all regions, operators and vendors around the world, so we really look at 5G as a collaborative project, where we are taking a strong role to drive [standardization] to completion. As you know, at the end of 2017, we managed to approve the first version of the NR specifications. We are very confident that the acceleration that we managed to push is going to result in products coming to the market much earlier than we predicted.
In a referee-free process…
All of the G standards — 3G, 4G and now 5G — are now being standardized into 3GPP, a partnership project with global standardization organizations. Like other standards processes, in some cases you have to find compromises or votes, but 3GPP is following rules which are about openness and transparency.
In comparison with Chinese and American contributions, how is Europe doing? Being Ericsson one of the front runners, if not the front-runner for Europe, do you see Europe moving ahead with the right pace?
As to the actual technical contributions, we saw strong input from all regions and also Europe, and that is pretty balanced, both in terms of contributions as well as in terms of chairman positions and what actually is driving the meetings forward. We have a good history of working research test beds into standardization: Ericsson has been driving this, and now we are leading this work to which others contribute to in the same way.
Where there is perhaps more of a question mark is on the commercialization side in terms of the plans for launching early 5G systems. We announced products 5G NR already at Mobile World Congress 2018, and we are providing the full stack, including hardware and software, for NR projects by the end of this year. We will have this available for the North American market, the Asian market and also for the European market.