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The many faces of Digital Transformation – The Enablers VIII

Automation in the manufacturing plant and the digital transformation of the supply (and distribution value chain) is reshaping the boundaries of industry and of manufacturing processes with robots and 3D printers that can be controlled by multiple players. The assembly line and workshop becomes a shared facility. This requires a most effective communications fabric responding to the specific needs of the various players/activities. Siemens is looking at this communication fabric as an integral part of their Industry 4.0 platform and has applied for private 5G spectrum license. Image credit: Siemens

Evolution from (tele) communication infrastructures to communications fabric – II

5G is going to be remembered, in 20 years time, as a transitional evolution, one that led to the change of paradigm in communication infrastructures. In 5G we have two seeds for this paradigm change:

  • the architectural possibility of shifting the session control (and network resource allocation) from the network (and Network Operator) to the edges (to the terminal, end customer and to the service provider);
  • the increased requirement on investment leading Operators to accept/look for investment sharing in towers as well as in edge networks, these latter built by private entities and embedded in the network infrastructure (as an example consider the application of Siemens to get private 5G spectrum license for industrial applications, i.e. digital factories – see image).

These two seeds will create a disruption in the telecommunication business. On the one hand you have the technology enabler (control shifts to the services/service providers), on the other hand you have the economic push to make the transition.

If 5G is not just an expensive endeavour, it changes what has been the fundamental factor in the wireless explosion. Consider this:

The deployment of wireless, differently from deployment of wireline infrastructure, could be planned in such a way to provide from the very start a very broad coverage. You place an antenna and power it up to cover a large area. That was possible because the frequency used by wireless had very good propagation, i.e. you can cover a large area with just one antenna. People were attracted by wireless because of its coverage (you can connect from everywhere). As more people started to use the service, the density would reach a point where traffic demand would no longer match with that cell traffic capacity. At that point the Operator would make the cell smaller by lowering the emission power (hence the coverage) and at the same time deploy more antennas, creating more cells. This resulted in an increased traffic capacity that would go hand in hand with the increased traffic and traffic revenues (this equation has started to crumble as Operators compete with one another and are shifting to an “all-you-can-eat” tariffing scheme). From the point of view of the end user the upscale of capacity was seamless, you would still get access everywhere, most likely with an increased perception of quality.

Now 5G when used with the higher frequencies (that are the ones providing the highest speed) does not scale! With those higher frequencies the propagation is very limited, less than hundred meters in a urban environment, much less if you use the 70+GHz spectrum. Hence, either the Operator deploys tons of antennas (10 times as many as with 4G) or the coverage is not complete. The result is that from a user viewpoint a limited coverage is seen as a big limitation in using 5G (yes you can use 4G as back up but then you are losing the speed advantages, so why should you pay more?) and from an Operator viewpoint is that the 5G deployment becomes (investment-wise) much more similar to a wireless network deployment (with on top the huge cost for spectrum licenses that some short-sighted Governments imposed).

This economic impact of 5G is what makes Operators more open to resource sharing with other Operators and with private players but to do this they have to embark on the transition leading to the shift of resource management from the network to the edges.

Introducing 6G. Although it is too early to know what 6G is going to be there are some general principles that can be used to look at its likely implication on the business framework:

  • Higher spectrum frequencies (getting closer and into the THz);
  • Multiplication of cells leading to huge overall investment and extremely high complexity if one approaches the architecture in a centralised way. Much more effective to go for a massively distributed control, with massive use of artificial intelligence both in the network resources and in the service applications (with terminals becoming network nodes and service platforms);
  • Service driven deployment of local 6G areas connecting one another where of interest and with big commoditised pipes for infra-edges communications with the possibility of network slicing on-demand;
  • Network growth inside-out, from the edges, with uncoordinated investment deployed by a variety of players, most of them private and institutions (like municipalities) with little contribution from incumbent Telcos

Hence the vision for this future network (being explored in the Future Network Initiative run by IEEE FDC): no longer an infrastructure designed top down and from the core to the edges, rather a communication fabric aggregating resources, investment and players, just like the Internet grew over these last 40 years. Notice that a general, accepted framework is needed, and this is what, most likely, 6G will be providing, along with standards.

The shift from a communication infrastructure to a communication fabric will be one of the outcome of the Digital Transformation and will result in a profound reshaping of the communication business and of its players.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.