The future of digital communications

St Catharine’s College Cambridge, 1 February 2017

Our event brought together leading players in the digital communications sector, including industry, policy and research. They considered some of the critical issues facing the digital communications sector and how best to create a model the UK’s digital telecommunications infrastructure to help decision-makers in policy and industry.

We would like to thank the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, funders of the ITRC-MISTRAL programme, and Analysys Mason, who sponsored this event.

Professor Jim Hall (University of Oxford) described the challenge of integrating digital telecommunications within ITRC-MISTRAL. Different from other infrastructure sectors, it is marked by rapid technological innovation with the demand for services co-evolving with capacity provision. It is tough to get data on networks and systems, and analysing resilience is tricky when there is a lot of redundancy in the system.

For this workshop, ITRC-MISTRAL is seeking some advice on how we should advance our modelling capability – what outputs will be most useful?

Dr Joe Butler (National Infrastructure Commission – NIC) outlined the NIC’s work so far on digital communications. This is primarily an in-depth study on 5G (Connected Future), reflecting the NIC’s conviction that digital is a core part of the UK’s infrastructure: the glue holding the other infrastructure sectors together.

NIC recognises that there is need to create a coherent approach to public investment in digital infrastructure, and the next National Infrastructure Assessment (NIA) will include some recommendations to government. NIC is at the evidence-gathering phase for the NIA. A workshop on 23 March will be part of this (anyone interested in attending should email by 9 March 2017).

1. Fixed and satellite networks

Professor Polina Bayvel (University College London) introduced the session by exploring the history and potential of the UK’s optical fibre communications infrastructure. It still carries 99% of all data and there are still improvements that can be made to increase capacity on this network. It is also critical to the operation of all UK infrastructure.

Professor Bayvel argued that we should not use the present to predict the future, and that a new national planning model needs to incorporate present data as well as some blue sky technological options and a range of variables, including policy (which has moved slowly so far).

Ian Hawkins (Head of networks research, BT) presented the trends and changes as seen from an industry perspective and which are driving investment.

He described the changing interactions taking place over the broadband network, such as immersive content and the Internet of Things. The UK’s fixed network is performing well compared to other EU countries, but more needs to be done with the existing network to meet increasing demand. BT has an ambition to put 11m customers on ultra-fast broadband by 2020, but there is an economic judgement about where to put this investment: new build, ease of access, density of business?

For the future, there is likely to be progress with network function virtualisation, to improve network resilience and adaptability. This approach has been taken up by NTT (Japan) in response to their experience of natural disasters, which in themselves make great demands on telecommunications networks. In future there will be a more software-based network, with cloud and network infrastructure converging. While this will be more agile, it also highlights the challenge of cyber-security.

1.2 Fixed and satellite networks – panel session

Dr James Allen (Analysys Mason), Andrew Ferguson (thinkbroadband), Dr Joel Grotz (SES Satellites), Robert Kenny (Communications Chambers), chaired by Professor Jon Crowcroft (University of Cambridge).

The questions ranged widely: the regulatory framework, market mechanisms to promote investment, the role of competition, international comparators, the role of satellite and dealing with customer expectations.

Main discussion points

  • Policy tends to drive development, but needs to be exercised with some caution. Being a prudent (technological) follower minimises the investment risk.
  • Competition has largely worked, but it’s not clear how it can address the gaps in service that still exist. Some people still have a single, poor option, so competition hasn’t worked for them.
  • Where there is choice for consumers, it’s important that they are guided to make the right choice for their needs.
  • Market interventions can work to promote social as well as economic objectives
  • Integrating digital into other infrastructures is a good idea, but difficult to co-ordinate in practice and not always good value.
  • UK’s digital infrastructure is good and broadly does well in international comparisons, but there are problems at the bottom end of the market.

2. Mobile, wireless and satellite networks

Professor Mischa Dohler (Kings College London) opened the discussion on mobile and wireless networks. The current capacity has increased by a factor of a million, largely driven by the move to smaller cells and network densification. More investment here would be more productive, but academic and policy interest tends to focus on the smaller improvements delivered by the physical layer.

Looking ahead, there are some inevitable trends: continuing increase in data transmission speeds, an increasing number of devices, improvement in delay. To help to respond to these changes, fibre networks need to be improved and new sharing models should be developed. There should be efforts to enhance cell density – but are there sufficient skills to install the necessary base stations? Would de-regulation of planning help? Who will be the new players in the sector in the future, and will a new regulatory framework be required?

Rupert Baines (CEO of ULTRASoC and non-Executive Director of Accelleran) gave an industry view which focused on consumers as the driver of change. The services people want, and how they are regulated, will dictate how the industry grows, not new technological development.

However there are some emerging trends: tablets and ‘phones are the most popular devices, drawing on large data centres, with laptops and PCs starting becoming the niche devices. Similarly for wireless, it’s either a small box or a large data centre. Spectrum is a scarce resource and isn’t being allocated well, with some bands full while others are under-used.

For the future, the application of small cells could help to improve coverage in rural areas with consequent social benefits. This might also be a way to address the increasing demand for mobile connectivity on transport, especially roads and railways, with innovations such as small cells located in vehicles. Globally, while Europeans are looking to 5G networks, remember that in developing countries, most people will be using 2G for the next five years.

2.1 Mobile, wireless and satellite panel session

Colin Blackman (Camford Associates), Dr Hector Fenech (Eutelsat), Dr Zoraida Frais (Technical University of Madrid), Caroline Miller (O2), chaired by Graham Louth (Aetha Consulting).

The questions focused on improving coverage, better customer experience, network densification and provision of 5G.

Main discussion points

  • The business case for 5G has not yet been made. Most applications can be delivered on 3G/4G.
  • Improving coverage is necessary, but there seemed to be consensus that a range of solutions would need to be considered, such as: subsidies, satellite, national roaming; and better stakeholder engagement.
  • Densification of networks will be necessary to improve services – there are clearly a number of constraints, including planning rules and availability of sites. Satellite might be helpful where traffic is sparse.
  • Customers mainly want a reliable service, but it’s important to understand what customers need and will pay for, and to not only be led by technology.

3. Modelling the UK’s digital communications

Dr Ed Oughton (University of Cambridge) introduced the digital strand of the ITRC-MISTRAL programme. It aims to understand capacity demand as well as risk, vulnerability and resilience. The model tries to answer questions such as: what is the cost of deploying digital communications; and how will this change over time? It also aims to model infrastructure viability, behavioural deployment strategies and interdependencies with other infrastructures (e.g. insights into energy demand of the network and responding to demands from the transport network).

The research team appealed for help with access to data sources, and also for information from industry and policymakers on what they would like the model to do for them.

3.1 Modelling the UK’s digital communications, panel discussion

Cristina Data (OFCOM), Neil Fleming (AIG), Noelle Godfrey (Connecting Cambridgeshire), Nick Palmer (Bellever Risk Management), chaired by Philip Guildford (University of Cambridge).

The questions related to requirements from modelling of digital infrastructure, access to data sets and understanding resilience.

Main discussion points

  • Useful outputs for a model would include exploring scenarios, informing future planning, how to expand connectivity, predicting future demand and growth, resilience to multiple failures and the impact of one failure on other systems. It must be applicable to a local level.
  • Is the model one based around risk and resilience, or one that incorporates supply/demand and policy factors? How can a digital system be resilient under both approaches?
  • Improved access to operators’ data might be possible if they can see the benefits of the model outputs and are convinced that their data will remain confidential. Operators are reluctant to share data, and ITRC-MISTRAL is looking at crowsourced data as an alternative.