5G, a missed opportunity. By Richard Smith, Filtronic
Wireless service provision is far from ubiquitous. In the UK, network coverage varies dramatically depending on location. Ofcom data from 2013 shows 12% of the country has no 2G coverage from any network and 22% have no 3G coverage (areas known as ‘not-spots’). The highest levels of coverage are in urban areas where high concentrations of subscribers make basestations most profitable for network operators. However ‘not-spots’ do not just occur in the most rural parts of the country, network coverage is surprisingly poor on major transport links that are used by thousands of people every day. Several of the conference speakers had monitored network coverage during their journey into London and were able to show the paucity of 3G coverage.
The digital divide is a global issue with a greater divide in the least developed countries, 3G is available to 89% of the global urban population but only 29% of the rural population [ITU ICT facts & figures] and in Nigeria, only 10% of basestations are 3G capable [Prof H Sama Nwana].
While regulatory bodies can take steps to improve coverage, they cannot eliminate the divide or ensure coverage is ubiquitous. For example, under the terms of O2’s licence it must provide 4G indoor coverage to 98% of the UK population by 2017. O2’s 4G roll out started in 2013 and under the terms of the licence some consumers will have to wait four years to get coverage and others will never get 4G.
The attention of the 5G community is focused on enabling higher data rates and supporting new applications, like the ‘Internet of Things’. This will require operators to have large contiguous blocks of spectrum, METIS have suggested 1GHz per operator. These blocks are likely to be in the mmWave bands therefore will have inferior propagation characteristics, as a result 5G basestations are likely to have reduced range compared to existing 2G, 3G and 4G basestations.
Without a change of emphasis it seems inevitable that 5G will widen the digital divide because, at a time when ARPU is falling, it will be difficult for operators to fund new 5G networks with the increased number of basestations required to match the coverage of existing network. Most users don’t want, or need, to be able to “download an ultra-HD movie in 10 seconds” they want to be able to check their emails or read the BBC news website wherever they are. 5G could be the standard that closes the digital divide and brings mobile internet access to all, but if it continues on the current path it seems likely it will instead bring ultra HD movies to a few.
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