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Bristol makes 5G 'tangible'

ss GB

Bristol's heritage - SS Great Britain, the world's first iron-hulled screw-driven liner, launched in 1843 - Photo via Flickr © Dave Hamster (CC BY 2.0)

  • The world's first 5G urban network publicly tested in Bristol, England
  • Massive MIMO array put through its paces
  • First ever public showcase of LiFi technology
  • Big support from BT and Nokia as well as the University of Bristol

 Recently, Bristol, the smartest of Britain's 'Smart Cities', mounted a public "Layered Realities Weekend 5G Showcase" in the city's Millennium Square. The weather played its part too, but not in a helpful way. A storm that originated in Siberia, the so-called "Beast from the East" provided days of a very different layered reality of ice on ice and snow on snow.

Remarkably though, people were intrigued and interested enough to turn out in what truly were Arctic conditions to witness and participate in a live proof of concept of 5G technology, services and applications. A 5G-based test network was installed in Bristol city centre as part of an ongoing joint research programme between the University of Bristol, Bristol is Open, BT, Nokia, Cambridge Communications Systems and pureLiFi to show and evaluate how fifth-generation mobile technology will work in dense urban environments and to give Bristolians a glimpse of the 5G future.

The pilot network ran over Bristol City Council’s fibre infrastructure as well as specially installed leading edge new technologies such as Massive MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) networks, mmWave bands, network slicing, and edge computing. By using multiple antennas to increase capacity whilst simultaneously splitting networks and directing signals, overall coverage and enhanced data speeds were achieved, sufficient to enable eye-catching ultra-high capacity and low latency use cases including robotics, video content, immersive gaming, connected bicycles and an autonomous car. Another set of longer-term use case tests will focus on how to use 5G and IoT further to transform Bristol into an even smarter city. In the first instance the spotlight will be on "smart" immersive tourism and connected transport.

Spectrum, specially licensed for the event, was provided by BT and connected to radio access points put in place by Nokia. The network was also connected to the ‘Bristol Is Open’ smart city platform and the antenna arrays were sited on the roof of the ‘We The Curious’ science centre and exploratorium which fronts Millennium Square. The temperature up there was minus 8 C whilst down on the ground in the Square itself it was a comparatively balmy minus 5 C.

Successful LiFi trial for "We The Curious"

As well as being a public demonstration of some of the attributes and capabilities of a future urban 5G network the testbed was used by scientists and engineers to explore, test and validate 5G architecture under real-life, real-time conditions - and extreme conditions they were too. The rig centred on two large terminals connected directly to a pre-standard 5G network, as well as an 802.11ad Wi-Fi and 4G+ network that utilised 5G for backhaul. The trials used and tested the 2.6GHz, 3.5GHz, 26 to 28GHz and 60-70GHz spectrum bands. Also tested was multi-access edge computing which, in late 2017 was trialled on the 'Bristol is Open' platform.

Those seeking a respite from the inclement weather could (and did)  repair to the cafe in "We The Curious" where LiFi technology was being showcased - for the first time anywhere in the world. This demonstration, of high-speed, secure wireless communications with LED lights, courtesy of Edinburgh, Scotland-headquartered pureLiFi, was also was also very popular with visitors.

LiFi technology can create thousands of extra comms channels to provide massively increased bandwidth and data flows, and, not only is LiFi incredibly fast (it is a light-based technology after all) it is also extremely secure because light can easily be contained and constrained - attributes that make LiFi a superb complement to 5G. All weekend visitors queued to place smartphones and tablets on snazzy tables set beneath LiFi lights and watched in astonishment as the system charged their devices.

Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Director of the Smart Internet Lab and High Performance Networks at the University of Bristol and also the Chief Scientific Officer of Bristol is Open told TelecomTV, "We are delighted to have been selected by the UK Government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to host one of the 5GUK Test Networks and we're really excited to be hosting this weekend’s public event."

She added, "This is a unique chance for members of the public to experience the world’s first 5G urban network and to have the opportunity to discover how new network technologies will transform the way we live, work and study in our cities." The Bristol trial is part of the British government's £25 million "5G Testbeds and Trials’ programme.

Interestingly the Bristol 5G event, which was heavily supported by BT, took place shortly after Gavin Patterson, the CEO of the incumbent and powerful UK telco, publicly spoke about what he regards as the current absence of a clear and compelling business case for the deployment of 5G technologies.

A billion 5G subscriptions worldwide by 2023?

A few months ago, Nokia, a lead partner in and one of the prime-movers behind Bristol's public weekend 5G event, published the results of a wide-ranging survey into consumer and enterprise attitudes to and expectations of 5G. It makes for interesting reading. The report, "5G: Separating the Hype from Reality" shows that 47 per cent of the statistically relevant 2000 consumers surveyed don't really understand what 5G actually and have no idea what "a network of networks" might be.

They envisage 5G as being a bit faster than 4G and not much else. Over 90 per cent of respondents else said they would use the technology to watch high-definition streaming video on mobile handsets. Clearly the industry has a major challenge on its hands to explain 5G and educate the general public about its myriad of potential applications. Enterprises, however, are considerably more aware of 5G's potential to transform their businesses

Elsewhere, in another edition of its ongoing "Mobility Report" series, Ericsson of Sweden concludes that there will be a billion 5G subscriptions to enhanced mobile broadband within five years. In the first phase early 5G deployments will concentrate on providing service to densely-populated urban areas and environments and, according to Ericsson, 5G will be available to about 20 per cent of the global population by the end of 2023.

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