5G is an evolution – and Telefónica is already starting to use it

James Pearce
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Enrique Blanco, Telefónica’s global CTO, speaks about the future of virtualisation and network upgrades in preparation for the much anticipated roll out of 5G which will be sometime in 2020. He talks to James Pearce

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Enrique Blanco: CTO, Telefónica

Although 5G is not coming until around 2020, Telefónica has already began incorporating the next generation technology into its existing network, in order to future proof itself for 5G deployments.

The standards for 5G are unlikely to be defined until 2019 at the earliest, and despite the noise and demonstrations at this year’s Mobile World Congress, we are still a long way off actual 5G deployments. Despite this, a number of the technologies that will be used in the fifth generation of mobile connectivity are already rearing their heads in 4G.

Enrique Blanco, the chief technology officer who has overseen the transformation of the Spanish incumbent’s network during the last five years, explains that it is important to make the step to 5G more of an evolution.

“All of the capabilities we have in 5G will begin to be included in 4G rollouts. Things like QAM modulation capabilities, NB-IoT plus LTE-M, plus others. These are all 5G standards but we are including them in 4G, evolving it. 

“Our main challenge is making sure all the capabilities we have in the radio are fully aligned with 4G – that’s what we’re doing. The architecture, including NFV from the start, means we can apply services for customers smoothly. What we cannot solve with 4G or 4.5G are those problems to do with the spectrum bands and the capacity.”

Those spectrum bands are unlikely to be available until around 2020, although a clearer picture is starting to form around what 5G might look like. It will involve QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation), which combines two signal beams into a single channel to boost bandwidth. It will involve MIMO (multiple input, multiple output). It will also involve virtualised architecture.

Fortunately for Telefónica, it is already on top of things, Blanco explains to GTB at the Spanish operator’s booth in the Fira Gran Via.

Earlier this year, it unveiled plans to virtualise its entire Latin American and European network as part of a massive contract with Chinese vendor Huawei. The deal covers 13 of Telefónica’s 14 operations, 11 of which are in South America. In Europe, Germany and Spain will also be upgraded, although the UK was not included in the announcement, perhaps because of uncertainty surrounding the future of O2 UK.

The two companies will be building a large-scale virtual evolved packed core (vEPC), which is an industry-approved framework for providing converged voice and data on 4G. Telefónica will use Huawei’s version of vEPC, called CloudEPC.

NFV is key to Telefónica

Blanco says this implementation of network function virtualisation (FV) is key to the operator, tenth biggest by global revenue, deploying future technologies on its network.

“We are now implementing NFV and we have the right orchestrator. We can say that we are ready with our business for the core of 5G. We can host immediately, and are already trying to deploy fast software pieces that can support the 5G, non-radio approach.”

This means a new way of deploying business service systems and operating service systems on its network. “We are in an excellent position, and our business support systems (BSS) and operations support systems (OSS) will be full stack, it will be virtualised, and that will give us an open ecosystem. We are very close to this. Go back for or five years, we were pushing the industry, and now we are in this position.”

That’s not to say Blanco, an affable Spaniard with more than 25 years of experience at Spain’s biggest operator, does not have some concerns about the future of 5G.

He, and many of his colleagues across other operators, believes 5G is an evolutionary model but will serve a different purpose and hold a different message for the end-user. Where 4G was always celebrated and promoted on the back of offering much faster connection speeds than its predecessor 3G, 5G will be about the reduction in latency and the ability to connect many more devices. This will mean a change in how it is viewed by the customer, meaning the industry must adapt.

This, Blanco fears, could be a challenge for vendors, who are already extolling the speeds of 5G connections. “My main concern is that the radio providers and the chipset providers will be trying to do exactly the same deployment for 5G as they did for previous generations,” he explains. 

“And it is our responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. We will try to adapt the network for our customer, not the customer to the network as has often been the case. But this is difficult, we know that, so we are working with the vendors to do that.”

In the driving seat

At MWC, Telefónica took part in a demonstration of 5G with Ericsson, showing how a car can be driven remotely from 70km away. The proof of concept uses Telefónica’s trial 5G network to allow a driver sat on the Spanish operator’s stand at MWC in Barcelona, take control of a KTH prototype car at race track in Tarragona 70km away.

“Telefónica is presenting the next platform, and it is all about the assets we have in the network,” Blanco beams. “We have all the capability in the core, in the radio, in the fibre, in copper. 

The test aims to demonstrate the low latencies on offer over Telefónica’s 5G network, even over a long distance, using 100G fibre backhaul. To support it, the Spanish operator used 15GHz of spectrum – a huge amount just for one use case.

“You can monitor it and drive it real time. So what do you need to do that? We are using pure 5G radio – ten times what we normally have access to in Spain – for 5G. We are reaching around 25Gbps speeds and on the pure network we are seeing 2ms of latency. Compare that to a traditional network which is up to 30ms. In 5G it is promising below 10ms, but with this, we are showing off 2ms.” The sheer scale of bandwidth that will be required for numerous 5G use cases is another challenge Blanco highlights, admitting that it is one that will not be easy to solve.

“If you look at it from a Telefonica point of view, we are experienced in all the markets we operate in, and each of them is developing different plans for spectrum. What is important is that if we are going to offer customers services speeds of over one 1Gbps, with latency below 10ms, we are going to need additional spectrum and we will need access to that.” 

This means more cooperation from governments and regulators, but Blanco remains confident of governmental appetite for 5G. “The good news is with 5G, we’ve been defining for the last four years how we can manage the spectrum we’ll need to manage this capacity. This will be hundreds and hundreds of megahertz, but this is a question for the regulators. We will need additional spectrum for sure. In the range of 6GHz through to 26GHz, we will need it. But we don’t foresee it as a big problem.”

Additional infrastructure needed

It will also mean a huge rollout of additional infrastructure. Currently, Spain has around 40,000 mobile base stations in operation across all of the major operators. Blanco estimates 5G deployment across the country will require more than 10-times this – at least half a million sites.

“Do we have the technology? We are very close. In Spain, we are extremely powerful in fibre capabilities,” he adds.

It will also mean picking the right technologies for deployment of the internet of things (IoT). Telefonica was heavily involved in Sigfox Alliance – one of the unlicensed IoT companies. Blanco says Telefónica’s future is 5G, and the components that will enable full 5G are beginning to fall into place much sooner than we think, according to Blanco.