Telstra prepares to usher in the 5G era

Telco gets ready for applications that can take advantage of the speeds, low latency and high capacity of the new wireless standard

It ain't pretty but it works: The 200kg 5G test device employed at Telstra's 5G Innovation Centre.

It ain't pretty but it works: The 200kg 5G test device employed at Telstra's 5G Innovation Centre.

Right now, the future of mobile connectivity puts the notorious ‘brick’ phones of the 1980s to shame: It weighs 200 kilograms and needs a ute to cart it around. But although the vehicle-mounted 5G ‘mobile phone’ used for testing at Telstra’s newly launched 5G Innovation Centre on the Gold Coast may seem a million miles from today’s iPhones and Samsung handsets, it is helping to usher in a new era for wireless communication.

Telstra is preparing for what communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield has previously described as an “inflection point” for Australia’s economy: The rollout of 5G. The new wireless mobile standard doesn’t just promise blazing speeds for end users; its capacity, low jitter and ultra-low-latency make possible a host of new applications running over cellular networks.

One of the drones used during the demonstration.Credit: Telstra
One of the drones used during the demonstration.

Telstra used the new centre’s launch to demonstrate a range of potential uses for 5G. For example, flying a swarm of HD-video-transmitting drones in combination with AI-based image recognition to help stage a surf rescue.

Although similar applications can run over the existing 4G networks (indeed, the drone demo relied on Telstra’s existing LTE network), it’s very much a case of “possible with 4G but practical with 5G,” Telstra CTO Håkan Eriksson said.

A drone swarm could easily chew through much of the capacity of a 4G cell, but with 5G Telstra expects such applications to become commonplace.

Telstra's 5G test device
Telstra's 5G test device

And although its 200kg prototype device won’t exactly slip into a pocket, Telstra is predicting rapid miniaturisation of 5G technology ahead of the 2019 rollout of the first wave of services based on the new standard.

“The prediction of handset vendors is that by the first half of 2019 we will actually have standard 5G handsets; that’s how quickly the development is going,” said Telstra executive director, network and infrastructure engineering, Channa Seneviratne. “It’s just phenomenal.”

Telstra chief operations officer Robyn Denholm said that the telco has “long established relationships and also deep technical connections with many of the chip manufacturers around the world and also device makers around the world.”

“One of the reasons for creating this type of innovation centre is that we can then take real-life use cases and make sure we have devices available for customers for those use cases,” the COO said.

“You’ve seen the size of the handset today but very, very quickly that will shrink into a tiny bit of silicon that will find its way into handsets and gateways,” said the telco’s head of networks Mike Wright. But beyond that, 5G-capable chipsets will rapidly find their way into more “things” ranging from water meters to agriculture sensors and devices embedded in vehicles, Wright said.

Telstra staged a live 5G demonstration that achieved 3.1 gigabit per second download speeds and in excess of 300 megabits upstream – with 6ms latency.

Telstra’s ute-mounted device was used for live streaming of 360-degree video. Other installations at the new centre include a display to highlight the beam-forming capabilities of 5G, which will allow capacity to be directed to areas of high network traffic, and a robotic arm used to demonstrate the impact of the lower latency of 5G compared to 4G.

At 20ms – typical latency for a 4G network – it is a struggle to control the robotic arm in a precise manner over a video feed. When latency drops below 10ms, the impact can be dramatic, opening the possibility of remote driving or other forms of remote control that require an operator to respond quickly to changing conditions, Seneviratne said.

Although Telstra is preparing for a 2019 launch of 5G, it is not ready to reveal detail of the precise services it will launch and when. (Optus has said it will launch a 5G fixed wireless next year.)

“This year is about learning about 5G and that’s going to inform our early launches,” Wright said. He said typically the rollout for a new generation of technology such as 5G could be expected to begin in areas where the previous generation had seen the highest demand.

Telstra is still studying the propagation of 26Ghz (mmWave) signals in city environments. Telstra and Ericsson last year announced that they successfully conducted a call over spectrum in the 26GHz band.

In addition to mmWave, 5G services will be based on the 3.6GHz band. Although Telstra is yet to pick up 3.6GHz spectrum, it will be able to leverage its 3.4GHz spectrum, Seneviratne said.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is reallocating spectrum in the 3.6GHz band for use in 5G services

Standards organisation 3GPP last year endorsed dubbed Non-Standalone 5G NR (New Radio). The standard involves combining 4G and 5G, Wright said.

“The two are almost glued together and they work in harmony with each other,” he said. “That will be the most likely early launch.”

Standalone 5G NR will be signed off by 3GPP this year and Wright expects the first deployments of that configuration, which relies on a 5G core, will eventually take place in environments such as campuses and mining sites – “specific areas with massive demand”.

“Generally speaking, the early rollouts we’ll do in the lower frequencies will tend to be glued on top of our 4G network and that way the users will get the benefit of this huge 4G footprint we’ve already got, plus the 5G features where they need them.”

The author travelled to the Gold Coast as a guest of Telstra.

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