EE will lose the technological credibility it has built up over LTE if it fails to be first and best with 5G in the UK, its senior technical team has said.
Fotis Karonis, MD of IT and Mobile at parent company BT, and Tom Bennett, Director, EE Labs, Technology Services and Devices Development, were speaking exclusively to Mobile Europe during last week's Qualcomm 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong.
Both executives highlighted next year's Emergency Services Network launch as a key stepping stone to next generation services, with it set to offer the same kind of services 5G will also deliver.
The police, fire and ambulance services will use EE's network to communicate over VoLTE from next year.
EE is under pressure to deliver, with the UK's National Audit Office saying in September there were aspects of the project that remained "inherently high risk".
Both Karonis and Bennett are under no illusions about the challenges and the opportunity the ESN presents. Bennett said: "Our experience with ESN has shown that industries, and ourselves as a mobile operator, still have a way to go. There is absolutely a benefit to industries that they can be so much more efficient through using mobile.
"However, mobile in its own right, and this is where 5G comes into its own, can deliver so much more as a service. This includes things like dynamic spectrum allocation."
He said the opportunity within ESN is to look at how the emergency services work and examine how much more efficient they could be.
He outlined the likes of always on networks, cloud access, and AI as potential technologies that it could take advantage of. The expectation is EE would get higher revenues by providing more managed services.
Karonis added: "Being the first to launch an emergency services network in the world, that gives us the momentum for all these crucial applications that we see but haven't tapped into yet.
"A lot of power with 5G will come from the verticals, across connected cities, transportation, driverless cars, mission critical [networks], embedded systems, where the very high end band will be very important for capacity."
The executives see the 5G network as truly dynamic, offering users the latency, capacity and speeds they require on demand. Karonis said: "5G is a much more adaptive, intelligent system, rather than just about speed and capacity."
Both execs agree that the revolutionary nature of 5G lies within its relationship with industrial transformation. Karonis said: "I've worked in industries like health, manufacturing and logistics and I can only think of fantastic capabilities of different verticals that mobile can help to deliver greater efficiencies, better customer experience, higher Ebitda, cut costs. I'm thinking of applications that will enable the likes of zero default systems, self-healing applications. The more predictable we can be, then the more we can avoid crises and deliver mission critical networks delivering 24/7."
Having been the first UK operator to launch 4G in 2012, the pressure is on to follow through 5G. There is still "an enormous amount of territory" that EE has not covered with LTE, Karonis said, and holding onto its reputation as innovating with this tech in the UK is critical for the years ahead.
He said: "If you can't be a great 4G operator, with a reliable service and very low dropped call ratio, how can you be credible to say 'I'm going to embrace 5G'? You need to get the important basics right."
He added: "We have pushed the ecosystem to match the customer requirements. It's about understanding what the customer needs are that will be need to be answered in three years time and start to address them today.
"We have various teams working on these issues because by the time they are there, if we want to be the leader and we haven't got the service, we're not the leader any more."
Pressure also comes from external factors, notably American and Asian operators keen to race ahead with 5G launches ahead of the standardised timelines. Bennett initially dismissed these moves as "global politics", noting how pressure from the Korean and Japanese governments over respective Olympic events in 2018 and 2020 was driving operators' plans for 5G. Similarly a game of one-upmanship between AT&T and Verizon is breaking the usual deployment plans.
He is more concerned around the issue of spectrum band fragmentation. Different operators causing fragmentation by playing with 5G in different bands is not good news for those building 5G equipment. He said: "You want to reduce the fragmentation as much as possible otherwise when you add a new spectrum band, so much of the engineering work needs to be repeated. All that antenna tuning and band combination has to be done again and there are only so many engineers to go around."
Bennett also said changes are needed to the regulatory framework, most specifically around site acquisition, a perennial complaint of operators. He said: "Building sites is not easy and you would be looking at going from a 19,000 site network to a 5G network at 28GHz, whose cell radius is 500 metres. We roughly work on a kilometre at present."
Karonis, who was Mobile Europe's CTO of the Year for 2015, said these challenges afford the operator, as well as the wider industry, the opportunity to change for the better by embracing the potential of software driven networks. He said: "This introduces the question of 'how do we transform skills?', from conventional types of computing and PSDN into a more inclusive IP agnostic mindset."
He added: "As our ancient philosopher Heraclitus says 'everything flows'. Everything is continuous and there is no stop. We have to transform continuously. The industry can only be relevant if we embark on a process of transformation."