5G Technologies and Smart Cities – Q&A with Thomas Magedanz

By The Open Group

Digitalization is forcing the convergence of networks and platforms that have traditionally remained separate. Mobile networks have previously been the domain of telecommunications providers, but as new mobile generations emerge the reach of the network is also becoming an enterprise domain.

We spoke with Thomas Magedanz, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the Technische Universität Berlin and Director of the software-based networks competence center at Fraunhofer Institute FOKUS, about the expectations for 5G networks, why 5G technologies are being tested with Smart Cities applications and how standards can drive the global network interoperability that 5G will require. Thomas was a keynote speaker at The Open Group Berlin 2017 in April.

What is 5G and how does it differ from 4G?

First of all, I think it’s very important to understand that we’re using terminology that relates to mobile networks but it is much more than just the next generation mobile system. The bottom line is that we can say that 5G is the first real software-based communication network architecture.

What does that mean? It means, on the one hand, that we will see a much stronger role for software, which is used to implement classic network functionalities, and this means that we’ll see a departure from dedicated hardware and software systems to the use of common, from-the-shelf hardware programmed to provide network capabilities and service capabilities. 5G is a highly programmable, distributed computing system that particularly makes use of distributed data center architectures, and this programmability could be exploited to provide optimized network infrastructures for different application domains. That could include enterprise networking, but these days typically we’re talking about massive machine-type communications enabling Internet of Things (IoT) applications, ultra-reliable low-latency communications enabling the tactile Internet and that equates to the industrial Internet of Things. Of course the other big buzzword and key application domain here is extended multimedia broadband.

In fact, we will see much more bandwidth becoming available for higher quality of data that you can enjoy as high resolution video streams, but we also talk about virtual and augmented reality, which means that a lot of data has to be transported over the air to the various end systems.

5G is really a network driven revolution because it turns the communications network into a software-driven system and by this it is a much more agile enabling platform supporting the delivery of much more innovative applications because we can realize really short deployment cycles for new applications.

All of this is based on software-based networks, namely software-defined networking and network function virtualization concepts, so this is a key aspect of the emerging 5G architecture.

Second, 5G will be super fast mobile broadband but it also will include fixed, satellite and other existing mobile networking technologies, such as WiFi, 2G/EDGE, 3G and 4G. In fact 3G, will be shut down in the future, but we talk about packet networks from the second generation, we talk about 4G and all its recent extensions, which all will be part of 5G access networks. There will be a completely new 5G radio interface for these big bandwidth capabilities in order to support these extended mobile broadband applications, and we will integrate satellite communications and also the fixed network infrastructures. In the end this means nearly everything is connected, fixed or wireless, to a 5G infrastructure in the next 10 years.

5G is really a big thing and there are a lot of requirements that have been discussed that are driving the development of this technology. People are now starting to think about what the applications are that should run on 5G and when you look at the visions we have—the self-driving car, energy networks being controlled by this kind of network, e-Health applications, safety networks, the whole notion of the industrial Internet of Things—these are typically mission critical applications. There are studies that say even health and industry 4.0 as well as automotive, are a part of this Industrial Internet, but we see application domains related to massive multimedia and data showers, so we can download whole media stores in a few seconds down to our device and go into network nirvana and enjoy weeks of video consumption, if we want. We can witness from the past that video applications are driving mobile network traffic, and we see an always increasing demand for higher bandwidth.

When we look at 5G and look at these very different application domains, there are three categories of applications that have been identified. This massive multimedia data to be exchanged; then we have the massive number of devices and things to be connected to the network in the near future. Here we don’t talk about big bandwidth per device but we talk about millions of devices with eventually limited capabilities that have to be supported in a small perimeter of distance, which of course in aggregation has a lot of bandwidth requirements in order to have the data to or from these devices—which might be sensors but also might be actuators that might be controlled by the infrastructure. Then we have low latency communications where probably we see the self-driving car, but also robots to be controlled. This means that we have really mission critical applications and low latency and this means the control of these devices has to be done pretty close to where these devices are. Here we talk about edge computing, which is becoming quite important in order to cope with the low latency demands from these applications. So these three categories are collectively called the ‘5G triangle of applications.’ A 5G network should be able to support these very different application domains by providing dedicated, customized control infrastructures in order to appropriately support these different application domains.

This in a nutshell is 5G—it integrates any type of access network, it is a software-based system that can be dynamically programmed in order to provide the right control layer for a given application. It can do this in a very agile way so crazy business ideas can ideally be implemented by plug-and-play and putting together existing network functions and roll it out instantly, so this is the idea that the deployment time for new services shrinks down from several days to a few minutes because we have what I call a “lego brick” system of functionalities that the 5G environment should provide.

It is really based on the adoption of cloud technology principles. This means we take the newest IT concepts, which in the networking domain have been instantiated by the buzzwords “software-defined networking” and “network function virtualization” and we are able to centralize or distribute control functionalities as needed in a distributed network architecture which is made out of distributed data centers.

How do you see mobile technologies helping to enable the concept of the Smart City?

When you take a look at the use cases, I personally would say 60-70% of all of these applications we already have seen in the context of Smart Cities. When you look at Smart City application domains, like smart parking, safety applications, smart homes, intelligent transport systems, environmental pollution monitoring and things like this, we can say there is a high match of similarities. Of course when we take a look at the challenges of Smart Cities, the biggest problem in the Smart City is what is the common platform? What is the common set of standards that has to be applied in order to allow all these applications to be deployed on a common infrastructure to allow the data used in one application eventually to be used in another application that creates this kind of intelligence and smartness of a Smart City? This all relates to big data integration and making data available to the public or other applications domains.

All these applications could be provided by different stakeholders in a joint environment, like the city premises. On the other hand 5G applications are likely happening in the cities. We will probably see 5G being rolled out first in cities and at the major special locations, like airports, stadiums, stations, and so on—typically places where lots of people are coming together and having lots of communication needs.

5G is supposed to start as a commercial infrastructure in 2020. This means we will see first deployments in the major capital cities and, similar to 4G, this will be rolled out over step by step as needed across the countries. We can probably assume that by 2025, 5G is available nearly everywhere in terms of roll out. This is something, when we talk about the time horizon. By 2020 the commercial version should hit the ground, and this is a highly ambitious target but the standardization is now really in a hot phase. There’s a lot of momentum in 5G standardization in order to bring the bits and pieces together. Smart Cities, in my opinion, could benefit from the availability of 5G standards because what we know from the past is that mobile telecommunications always has been a catalyst for the economy. 2G changed the way of communications, 3G was a disaster because it was overhyped as the mobile Internet and it couldn’t deliver that, but looking at 4G, it has really changed the world. We are now enjoying bandwidth rates that we have never thought about to be available in a really economical way. All of us can enjoy, while we are moving, navigation services, health services, and of course entertainment services. We can even remotely control our smart home—all of this is possible with 4G as a bitpipe. And now with 5G we have even more secure, more performant, even low delay communications so that we can really enter a completely new range of “critical” applications.

A key driver for 5G is the Olympic Games in Tokyo because typically mass events are utilized to launch new technologies. In Tokyo, there will be a strong need to supply safety applications, tourist applications, to stream and distribute all these sports events in high resolution where you can pick your view of the event and you can watch your favorite team member of your sports team or whatever. There are a lot of applications–such as intelligent traffic systems, tourist guide applications, etc., that are present in these events. This is why Tokyo and Japan are considered to be one of the driving places for 5G. Nevertheless, Europe and other places are also key for launching 5G by 2020. When you look at the plans of AT&T, Verizon, Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone, they are nearly the same as those of DoCoMo, Softbank and KDDI in Japan. And South Korea having the Winter Olympic games in Seoul in 2018, tSK Telecom will be using pre-5G technologies to have pilot first 5G showcases.

From this year onwards we will see a lot of 5G trials and 5G test beds popping up around because this technology has been developed in the laboratories and it has to be validated on the streets. It has to be proven that this technology will be able to provide the estimated performance and reliability, that it is able to deliver the low latency and high bandwidth in a scalable and secure way. It’s really about scale and a high number of systems and things being connected to the network infrastructure. When we talk about 5G end systems we don’t talk necessarily about a 5G smartphone, but we rather talk about 5G modems that will be embedded in any kind of future device—your car, your smart watch, your smart gear, and devices integrated into your smart home, e.g. your fridge, lights, or whatever you can imagine in the future. 5G will finally be nearly everywhere and it is this kind of digital connectivity that is driving the digital transformation, which is happening in Smart Cities.

Your abstract for the Berlin event mentions the concept of “network slices” – can you describe what those are and how they work?

The 5G architecture promotes a concept that is called ‘network slicing.’ Let me go back to what I said initially—5G is a software-based system. You have to imagine 5G as a distributed data center architecture that could be configured in such as way that users of this infrastructure—let’s call them ‘virtual network operators’—could define their own way of how this distributed data center architecture should be configured in terms of the control plane protocols, the user plane protocols and data formats to be exchanged, what type of encryption and security functionalities are needed, where specific enterprise data should be located—either on a centralized server outside or inside the network or at the edge of the network (we call this multi-access edge computing – MEC) or even in the front of the network in some smart gateway nodes (we call this FOG computing).

Because in the future we see many more applications where we need an active ‘treatment’ of the data—you might have decoding of the data, data analytics, local decision making and other functions, which typically you don’t do for all applications in a centralized cloud architecture or a dedicated enterprise server but you may want to do this pretty close to the end systems. This is exactly what’s needed for applications like robots or cars or whatever should be dynamically controlled. For security applications, for instance, it would be crucial to analyze pictures of people entering a building or a specific spaces in real-time, and in order to do this in real-time you need to do the processing at the place of the cameras, either at the base station or the proper node that is pretty close in order to save bandwidth and fast processing.

5G provides this kind of programmability to allow a virtual network operator to define it’s own network architecture and it is the job of the network providers—Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica, Verizon, KDDI, etc.—to enable this kind of programming and network configuration. This is network slicing—the network infrastructure itself is potentially a shared infrastructure but every individual tenant has the feeling or gets the services as if they have a dedicated, private enterprise network. This creates a better economy of scale in the sense that we can rapidly roll out services with the corresponding virtualized network infrastructures, and we can do that with low cost because we are exploiting these virtualized network functionalities and cloud technologies so we can roll out a network architecture for a few hundred customers initially. When this enterprise network has to grow, it can be scaled up very fast and efficiently by making use of more processors, storage and networking capabilities provided by the distributed data center infrastructure— up to several hundred thousands or millions users, if needed.

Saying that, it could mean, for instance, the car companies like Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes can run their own low latency network infrastructures for autonomously driving cars as a network slice on top of a carrier grade shared infrastructure. It might be insurance companies in the health context that run their own e-Health applications on their dedicated e-Health network in order to provide secure, customized data services. It might be manufacturing companies connecting their production equipment across the world via a dedicated Industrie 4.0 slice. It might be security companies connecting their webcams via a dedicated broadband network infrastructure with integrated video analytics capabilities. The possibilities are, in principle, nearly endless. This concept of network slicing is currently a really hot topic in 3GPP standardization and something that is going to be implementable probably at the beginning of next year. We are doing prototyping here in Berlin on our 5G-ready trial platform on top of our 5G playground infrastructure at Fraunhofer FOKUS, but this will happen a little bit later on a larger scale on the streets of Berlin. But this is what we aim to do in Berlin.

What would a 5G-enabled Smart City ideally look like?

I have worked in the past on what has been called ‘future internet technologies,’ and those to a large extent have been Internet of Things technologies. We have started to think about where do we find all these IoT applications? It was clear that you can find those in a massive way in Smart Cities because in cities you have all these different sensors and actuators that are somehow to be connected via fixed and mobile network technologies. Indeed, instead of laying down wires, which is very cost intensive, we can see in machine-to-machine communications that this is a typically mobile network service because it is much easier to deploy and attach a SIM card to a car or devices in your home and then connect those via a wireless network to some controlling infrastructure. This is, in principle, the base for IoT applications in Smart Cities.

The basic enabling infrastructure of Smart Cities is the connectivity of the city so we should be able to connect via whatever wireless or fixed networking technology is available for our devices and actuators in order to automate things in a city. Obviously we can find several of these networking technologies in cities, and we can also see—looking at the current broadband plans in Europe—that you, first of all, find the best connectivity in the cities. These cities are now moving toward the broadband targets that have been defined by the European Commission in the context of the Gigabit Society. The Gigabit Society needs high-bandwidth, optical fiber networks but also high bandwidth, wireless access network technologies, and this means 5G is named in the same sentence when we talk about the future broadband rollout. When we talk about the rollout, and the enablement of the Gigabit Society, which will happen first in city centers, public buildings, special places and in major transport ways, obviously 5G is part of this.

Most of the cities these days are rolling out optical fiber, which is the prerequisite for 5G because we have many more base stations that need to be connected to the backend, or backhaul, infrastructure and you have to provide lots of antenna systems in cities to provide the connectivity. But it’s not only wireless, it’s also including fixed network integration as well. It all starts with a serious rollout plan for optical and wireless connectivity in the countries.

There is a need for some pioneering cities to show how 5G technologies could be utilized. Commissioner Oettinger introduced the notion of “5G capitals” in Europe. The question is where do you want to show 5G technologies and all of these applications that are considered to be important in the 5G context? Obviously, it will be the major capitals, like London, Paris, Berlin, where you can find all the 5G applications—safety, energy, intelligent transport, public and sports events and many more You also want to support autonomous driving and provide innovative e-Health applications because you have major hospitals there. This doesn’t mean that if you live outside the city, you don’t need these services, but the biggest challenge is to get the bandwidth and connectivity also rolled out into the countryside, and there’s still a big challenge of how to justify the investment of this kind of infrastructure to the wide spaces on the map. Nevertheless, this is the reason why the integration of satellite technologies is bringing a lot of value because there might not be a reasonable argument to deploy antenna systems in a small village, but satellite technology could do the job to provide services in those areas.

How is 5G going to effect enterprise companies? It sounds like companies going through digital transformations are not only going to have to become data companies but they are going to build their own network.

Exactly. The key point is what type of data is a company making use of? Then the question is it static data or highly dynamic data and does this data have to be processed, analyzed, do we have to do some predictions with it and how does this affect the control of the environment? When this goes much closer to the real-time and low latency domain then 5G is the technology of choice because it offers the flexibility to place some of the data storage and analytics to specific places, namely the edge of the network. Even these places don’t have to be static, they can be dynamic because we can dynamically program the network environment. For instance, following the enterprise customer, whatever the enterprise customer is, whether part of a sales force or an end user with his device or in his car or on public transport making use of services and giving this person advice or hints on what to use to configure the environment around this person on the move.

One thing is clear, we are more and more going toward a society where we are working from home or wherever we are, and we don’t necessarily have to have a physical presence in a specific building at a given time. This means the work environment is coming to each of us, and this means you can create this environment around you and adapt the environment you are in to become yours.

The digital transformation just started and it’s not 100% clear where we are heading. One thing that’s clear is that we have to start thinking disruptively and we have to play around with what’s possible with 5G technologies in order to create disruptive thinking and create use cases to see how existing economies and companies are challenged. 5G and its availability are necessary to create these new innovative services ideas and to see if this really works. In Berlin, we have four Fraunhofer Institutes. All of them have around 500 scientists—2000 scientists together have launched the center for digital transformation. Our mission is to investigate what the impact is of the technologies and the change in society by means of these technologies becoming available. We are putting together our know-how and bringing this onto the street in the form of so-called transfer centers, and we’re inviting the industry to work with us in these new 5G and IoT infrastructures to see how we can master and exploit the digital transformation but also to understand the risks and challenges.

How will 5G affect how Enterprise Architectures need to be put together?

The key question is, what is an Enterprise Architecture in the sense of how is connectivity utilized in an enterprise network? And what is an enterprise network in this context? On the one hand, we can say there is a kind of enterprise that needs to interconnect specific devices in a highly secure way and have its own kind of networking control architecture in order to run its own dedicated applications in a distributed and secure way. We can say this is a customized network and ideally this network should be based on commodity standard technologies in order to be financially viable. It’s just a dedicated, highly secure customized setting of the network.

How do open standards fit into the picture of how 5G will enable Smart Cities?

In my team at FOKUS (Research Center for Open Communications Systems), we are looking at open standards and standards to create globally deployable plug-and-play solutions. We have a long tradition of prototyping emerging ICT standards. We were pioneers in CORBA and J2EE-based distributed systems interoperability. We were pioneers in VoIP and SIP interoperability; we built the first open source IP Multimedia System (IMS), which is a global 3GPP standard for fixed and mobile networking service platforms. We also work with all the other standards bodies and have a dedicated group that does interoperability testing for ICT standards.

We see particularly in 5G a plug-and-play system. This system is super complex to be honest. I personally call it the ultimate convergence platform. We need to integrate IoT— namely the ongoing OneM2M standardization, ETSI-network function virtualization and multi-access edge computing standards and, last but not least, the emerging 5G standards from 3GGP. All of these are highly important for creating an integrated platform that can be customized to specific needs. There is also one important aspect of 5G—namely that this is a global technology. So these 5G technologies or standards should lead to technologies that can be deployed all around the globe. Of course the biggest challenge is in the radio frequencies that have be aligned all over the globe. But the radio access is just one important part and not the only one in 5G.

For 5G, the most important part is the programmability of the network infrastructure in order to make this network a massive, multimedia video distribution network or to make this infrastructure a highly efficient, massive machine-to-machine communications infrastructure or to make it a low-latency, factory control infrastructure. As we see, we talk about very different application domains that have their own requirements and domain-specific standards to be incorporated. So when we go for autonomous driving, we have to socialize with the car industry. When we go for factory networks we have to go to all these industry standardization forums, like the Industrial Internet Consortium or OPC. So standards play an important role, and there is still some way to go in order to create the awareness in all these standardization bodies that they have to cooperate and look for common profiles and common denominators because this will decide on the success of 5G.

Let me add one more point. I mentioned before, an enterprise could create its own network slice, it’s own overlay network. This in fact is an opportunity. In 5G someone could create their own proprietary control network and could use dedicated proprietary protocols for communication. What is nevertheless needed in terms of standardization is of course the management and orchestration of customized slices, the lifecycle management—i.e. how to describe a component, how to deploy a component, scale up, scale down, functionalities to meet specific performance and security aspects, etc. This means there’s some room for some proprietariness, but as usual some common building blocks for often needed functionalities, such as mobility management, authentication, quality of service provision and the like, are currently under standardization. Additionally, the end systems/modems, to be useful around the globe, they need to adhere to global access network technology standards and frequency ranges. This is what’s happening in 3GPP standardization today.

I personally believe the key issue today in Smart Cities is that there is no single Smart City standard. There are a bunch of best practices but I personally believe that, particularly for the IoT, which is in the heart of smart cities, 5G will be the driver for a consolidation in standardization. I see 5G really as a driver for the roll out of Smart City applications in the near future.

What’s interesting is that 5G is a global hot topic—China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, U.S., South Americas, and Europe are working on this. So there’s a lot of momentum behind 5G standardization and technologies because it’s really a big market. It’s challenging when you take a look at how complex this standardization is. But we have a good understanding of what’s going on around the world—and it’s good to see that the whole world is working on this technology.

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Thomas Magedanz (PhD) is full Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences faculty at the Technische Universität Berlin, Germany, leading the chair for next generation networks (www.av.tu-berlin.de) since 2004. In addition, he is Director of the software-based networks competence center at the Fraunhofer Institute FOKUS (www.fokus.fraunhofer.de/go/ngni) in Berlin since 2003.

For 25 years, Professor Magedanz has been working in the convergence field of fixed and mobile telecommunications, the internet and information technologies.  This resulted in many international R&D and consultancy projects centered around the softwarization of networks and namely the prototyping of advanced Service Delivery and Control Platforms for converging fixed and mobile Next Generation Networks for major international network operators and equipment manufacturers. In the course of his research activities, he published more than 300 technical papers/articles and his OpenXXX software toolkits and the build upon advanced mobile broadband network testbeds for 3G, 4G, and 5G prototyping are used in many pioneering R&D and innovation labs around the globe.