Pioneering 5G research underpins digital infrastructure investment strategies

Dr Edward Oughton gives an insight into ITRC research which will allow the telecoms industry and governments to make better investment decisions around 5G

Why is 5G so important for consumers and businesses?

5G technologies are set to transform all areas of our lives, from the economy to healthcare and tourism.

Existing 4G networks are unable to cope with the data demand and latency requirements of new use-cases, such as augmented and virtual reality immersive content, and connected vehicles.

But until now it has not been possible to accurately quantify and map the national requirements of this essential infrastructure, including the financial ramifications of different digital infrastructure strategies.


How much investment is needed in 5G?

The UK’s Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium (ITRC), at the University of Oxford, is developing a software platform which will pioneer long-term 5G investment decision-making, in partnership with the UK’s Digital Catapult.

There is limited knowledge and understanding of the financial impacts of the roll-out of different 5G infrastructure strategies.  

The models and research in development at ITRC will allow multinational organisations, governments and other digital ecosystem stakeholders to understand the investment costs involved in providing different levels of capacity and coverage.

The new software platform ITRC is piloting informs investment decision-making for different 5G infrastructure strategies. We have also carried out a pilot investment analysis into the capacity and coverage required to roll-out 5G in the Netherlands.


Pioneering 5G infrastructure investment model for the UK and beyond

To develop the model, the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium and the Data & Analytics Facility for National Infrastructure (DAFNI) paired up to create an open-source software tool for both mobile and fixed networks. It enables users to assess the required costs for rolling out different levels of 5G coverage and can be applied in the UK and overseas.

The model uses data from a range of sources, including population forecasts, system capacities, coverage and data demands, and budget constraints, to examine what different strategies for implementation could look like. The outcomes can be used to inform government decision-making, as well as for businesses planning for the future.

Currently it’s very difficult to quantify the performance of different digital infrastructure strategies for either 5G or rolling out fibre-to-the-premises.

The platform we are testing allows different strategies to be compared in terms of capacity, coverage and cost, allowing industry and government to take better-informed decisions. Uniquely, this model has a graphical user interface which means it can be used by non-technical users, unlike the limited number of engineering models that exist.


Wider availability of the model

The model is currently being piloted, and we plan to make it available for alpha testing in summer 2019.

It will be particularly useful for start-ups and other smaller providers and technology companies in the 5G sector, plus government departments who require quantified intelligence in order to make business and policy decisions.

For example, quantifying the costs of deploying and accessing 5G services can help smaller companies understand how best to develop their own business model, including how they optimise the delivery of their own products and services to different places.


Investment decisions for telecoms players

Many players in the telecommunications industry in the UK and worldwide have been experiencing flat or declining revenues due to a variety of factors, particularly the proliferation of free-to-use communication tools such as WhatsApp.

Decisions over investments need to be carefully considered as the industry starts to sink billions into 5G technology for use cases which include Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Massive Machine-type Communications (mMTC) and Ultra-Reliable and Low-Latency Communications (URLLC).


Investment decisions for government and local authorities

The importance of making appropriate and future-proofed investments in infrastructure were boosted by the Chancellor’s request in autumn to the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) to conduct a study on infrastructure resilience. The NIC’s first National Infrastructure Assessment published in 2018, looked at a variety of essential infrastructure sectors, including telecoms, in order to guide government, regulators and industry to ensure the UK has the infrastructure it needs over the next 30 years.


Transformational technology use-cases

As well as the better-known use-cases mentioned earlier, 5G has the potential to provide enhancements, such as much higher capacity connections to fast moving vehicles and trains, and to transform real-time traffic safety and critical infrastructure monitoring.


Mapping 5G in the Netherlands

It’s not just the UK which wants to make careful choices about investment strategies around 5G: the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy commissioned ITRC and a team of researchers from other universities and consultancies to analyse the capacity, coverage and cost of 5G infrastructure strategies for the Netherlands.

Countries simply cannot afford to undertake poor decision-making when it comes to digital infrastructure as billions of dollars are being invested globally every year.

The report for the Netherlands identifies investment costs per user for various 5G infrastructure strategies, as well as which will offer the best capacity per user.

It provides the Ministry with data to allow them to identify which 5G network expansion strategy will be the most cost effective, and the costs of providing coverage to different proportions of the population.

Dr Edward Oughton specialises in modelling infrastructure systems to answer questions around economics and policy issues and is also a 5G Researcher in Residence at the UK’s Digital Catapult.