Ensuring the 5G revolution is a success

Fifth generation or 5G mobile technology is planned for deployment in 2020, by which time more than 20 billion connected devices will be in use across the world.

Emerging applications such as smart cities, Industry 4.0, autonomous cars, precision agriculture and virtual reality will all rely upon the technological advances brought by the 5G network.

The 5G network won’t just deliver a much higher data capacity and faster mobile internet connection. It will also allow for 90% less energy consumption and provide more reliable coverage, forming the basis on which the UK will implement its digital economy. Digital technology is predicted to boost the UK economy by £55 billion by 2020 and, with a significant proportion of components in smart devices designed in the UK, we need to maintain our competitive edge and ensure the technology we manufacture in the UK is easily exportable to other markets.

The timing of 5G’s rollout is apt, as technological innovation and rising demand for data means that industry and society desperately require a communication network tailored to our data-hungry needs. Existing 3G and 4G networks were introduced without the relevant measurement infrastructure and standards in place, and there are still discrepancies in measurement. This meant that even when a device claimed to be fully connected to a 4G network, there was no traceable means of proving it – which might explain why those emails never sent on the train home. This led to increases in cost for consumers and problems when exporting technology, stifling innovation and damaging trade. If we are to unlock the full potential of 5G, this cannot happen again.

Digital technology is predicted to boost the UK economy by £55 billion by 2020

To ensure that the 5G vision is realised, new supporting metrology needs to be developed alongside product development. There is a shortage of available frequency spectrum below 6 GHz meaning that millimetre-wave frequency bands are a good candidate to explore for 5G smart device applications, but shifting to these frequencies presents problems such as loss of signal without line of sight. To tackle these challenges, NPL is at the forefront of an array of cutting-edge projects to develop new antennas that can operate at millimetre-wave frequencies and provide a reliable signal when integrated into a smart device.

In addition to developing and testing new hardware, we are working on developing standards for 5G to ensure it is interoperable globally, leading a European project, MET5G, on the measurements underpinning 5G, with input from researchers and key industrial stakeholders. Through this project, our world-class scientists and facilities are testing technology, signals and the real-world environmental factors affecting 5G performance. As part of our strategic partnership with the University of Surrey, we are also a member of the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), now the largest UK academic research centre dedicated to the development of the next generation of mobile and wireless communications, and we jointly run the Nonlinear Microwave Measurements and Modelling Laboratories (n3m-labs), helping to develop the next generation of super-efficient electronic devices.

For industry and society to be able to benefit from this step change in connectivity we need to provide measurement support to underpin all aspects of 5G – the signals, devices, systems and test environments. NPL’s work is key to making this happen – it will help to provide a competitive edge for industry in the UK, improve the speed to market for 5G products, and ultimately improve engagement between consumers and the latest cutting-edge technology.

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