The big interview: do believe the hype

Philip Mason talks to the head of Huawei’s European wireless product management team, Ray Williamson, about the ongoing development of mission-critical 5G and the eventual road to 6G.

Could you tell me a bit more about your role, and how the wireless product management team helps to drive the rest of the business?

I’m part of the wireless product line, focusing on the development of broadband technology. We look at everything from 2G, to 5G Advanced and eventually 6G.

Our main customers are the mobile network operators, and it’s our job to consult with them, as well as with industry and the end-users. We’re in the process of talking to the verticals about what products they need – and therefore we need to develop – in the next three to five years.

At the same time, we’re also involved in the initial business engagement process, again, working with verticals to help them understand the use-cases for 5G. Seeding and developing the market, basically.

Again, we primarily work with some of the leading mobile network operators in Europe, who themselves are becoming increasingly interested in the verticals market. I need to be able to help the MNOs understand the requirements of these potential customers.

What part are the MNOs likely to play in the critical comms ecosystem going forward, particularly in comparison to private network providers?

Mobile network operators are always going to want to leverage the networks that they have built, which is where the slicing conversation comes in. As mentioned, however, operators are increasingly seeing the importance of verticals, to the point where they are predicting a considerable increase in revenue in the 2B [to business] segment as opposed to the traditional consumer piece.

There are certain use-cases where use of the consumer network is completely appropriate. At the same time, it’s increasingly being seen that private networks have got an important role to play as well.

What is that going to look like in practical terms? What do you anticipate the preferred models of roll-out are going to be?

Honestly, that’s something which we’ll just have to wait and see. The deciding factor might be down to region, one example being the heavy industry and mining-related networks that are currently being deployed in China. Those are using public spectrum in many cases, but in reality they are actually private networks because the sites in question are so inaccessible. It is almost like a ring-fenced environment.

At the same time, there will be other use-cases where the business in question is purely interested in having its own 5G system. The larger car manufacturers are a good example of that, particularly given the urgent requirement for them to manage their own data. They are looking to use dedicated spectrum to deploy their own campus networks.

That being the case – and staying on the subject of spectrum – is more now being made available for use by private networks?

We’re now seeing dedicated spectrum being made increasingly available in the industrial space, particularly in Europe. For instance, Germany recently allocated some of the C Band – 3.4 to 3.8GHz – for verticals. At the same time, in the Netherlands, they are looking at a different part of the C Band, while in the UK, we have taken spectrum in the 3.8 to 4.2GHz range.

While this is undoubtedly positive from the verticals’ point of view, we are also now starting to see a certain amount of fragmentation in terms of the use of different spectrum across those different countries. That could possibly create some challenges when it comes to mass adoption, something which would ultimately affect things when it comes to driving the cost down. The more standardised the approach, the better the return.

Another challenge related to this is the number of different potential types of infrastructure and models of roll-out, all of which will be dictated by the needs of the organisations themselves. In some cases, they will just be using public networks, while some will be using dedicated on-premise, and some will be using a mixture of both.

Are verticals in the industrial space becoming more convinced about the value of 5G?

I would say that the level of interest is increasing all the time, starting around 18 months ago. The vertical industry has moved from listening to the hype around the potential of 5G to understanding the business benefits of it.

That being the case, what they want to know now is that the technology is ready to go to market. That means they need to be shown that the ecosystems exist, both in terms of the networks and the devices.

I think real evidence of that progress can be seen in the fact that there are now around 100 5G modems available, specifically for use in industrial type applications. As of last year, I think they were about 150 dollars each on average, and now they are less than a hundred. By 2023, we predict they will be as low as 20 dollars. Honestly, we’re now seeing 5G scaling to a similar price point as Wi-Fi, at least from a device perspective.

Many critical use-cases require considerable network resiliency and reliability. Are verticals becoming more reassured in relation to that?

I would say that there are still some question marks from the verticals over reliability, as well as security. But, again, we have ongoing reference cases which are starting to convince the market that the technology addresses these areas.

What needs to happen now is that we need to embed testing in order to prove that these networks are as reliable as they are needed to be in terms of coverage and redundancy. At the same time, these organisations have to absolutely avoid the possibility of outages, which is another thing they need to be reassured about. We work with a manufacturing company in the automotive space, and their expected downtime is literally minutes per year.

In terms of security, 5G has a lot of features which come through the 3GPP standards applications. To use Wi-Fi as the comparison again, there has always been a reluctance to use it for critical communications, specifically because of concerns over security and reliability. A lot of improvements have been made to 5G within 3GPP, however, on both the radio side and the core side.

The other thing with 5G is that if you want to, you can virtualise the core and bring everything on-premise.

You mentioned earlier that you are looking at developing products for roll-out in two or three years’ time. What does the medium and long term look like, and where do 5G Advanced and ultimately 6G fit into that narrative?

As with previous technologies, we can’t just have 5G and then jump straight to 6G 10 years later. The concept of 5G Advanced therefore marks the next phase in that continual evolution, gravitating around Release 18, which is probably no more than two or three years away.

There are a few areas in the current standards which require enhancement to satisfy the wide variety of 5G use cases, for instance in relation to uplink data throughput. There will therefore be a big focus on uplink performance going forward, something which is absolutely crucial for industry.

Regarding 6G, at the moment it is being talked about as less focused on the technology and more on what it does for the planet and the people who inhabit it. I’ve seen a lot of very socially conscious and environmental-driven use-cases, looking at the broader impact on people’s lives.

Release 18 is scheduled for 2024 – maybe in the market by 2025 – with speculation being that 6G will be somewhere around 2030.

Finally, how has the British government’s banning of your network components affected business in Europe, and what do you predict will be the long-term effects on the 5G landscape in the UK?

Starting with the impact on the UK, I think it’s a pity because the UK was making really good progress in terms of rolling out 5G.

We had enabled all four of the major operators to offer the service, which I think was a first in Europe. Since then, the change of supplier, alongside the restrictions, have meant a delay of about two years.

In terms of Huawei – and what I do in particular – we have only seen those restrictions in a small number of markets in Europe. Even in the UK, we still have regular discussions with organisations about how their business is going and what they require. We continue to have vision strategy meetings about what will be happening in five or 10 years, and we are still involved in standardisation.

Ultimately, it has not made a huge impact in terms of what I do. That said, I’d obviously still love to be talking about the work we do in the UK.

To continue the conservation, join us at Critical Communications Network - the new online community for the sector

Editorial contact

Philip Mason
Editor, Critical Communications Today
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216