BT looks to gain in-depth 5G understanding from Bristol testbed

The city of Bristol, in the south west of the UK, is one of the country’s most advanced smart city projects with its Bristol is Open program. Its university is also at the heart of 5G developments, and a convergence of the two efforts should create an important UK 5G testbed.

One of the steps towards that goal is the establishment of a live 5G proof of concept (PoC) to test smart city application in the city center, starting in March next year. This is part of a joint research initiative led by the university, incumbent telco BT and Nokia.

At the announcement of the project, Cormac Whelan, CEO of Nokia UK and Ireland, said the PoC would help turn the UK into a major 5G testbed and attract investment and industrial expansion “on the back of 5G”.

In fact, the country’s best known 5G test environment is at the University of Surrey, in southern England, which houses the 5G Innovation Center, funded by the government, Huawei and others. Recently, a new tranche of government money was awarded under the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, but to a collection of universities including 5GIC, Bristol and Kings College London.

Dimitra Simeonidou, professor of high performance networks at the University of Bristol, said he expects about 5,000 people to attend a 5G event on March 17 and 18, at which they will be able to interact with robots, connected cars and bikes, and advanced games – all designed to test 5G-class low latency in a real world environment.

She said the main focus of investigation will be on the reliability of service and how 5G can work with 4G and WiFi to give an “always connected” experience, adding: “The idea is to disseminate what we learn to the rest of the UK and create a national asset.”

Neil McCrae, chief architect at BT, said the telco aims to learn more about how to expand its mobile network – run by its mobile subsidiary EE – and about likely use cases such as M2M communications, drones or emergency services networks.

“We’re gaining a real world understanding of how 5G can be used within dense urban environments. This is crucial to building meaningful use cases for future macro-scale 5G networks. 5G is teaching us that collaboration is essential,” he said.

He said BT needs to be able to “do more for less, with less” in the future, and that it needs practical experience of how 5G technologies will work when loaded with real user traffic. “We want to look at this from an operational perspective – how to manage network slicing… and looking at how 5G might be used in the real world beyond enhanced mobile broadband connectivity,” he added.

The test network will run over Bristol City Council’s dedicated fiber infrastructure around Millennium Square using Nokia’s 5G prototype networks, as well as its commercial AirScale and AirFrame offerings. The test networks will run in some BT and some trial spectrum, in the 3.5 GHz, 26-28 GHz and 60-70 GHz bands. There will be two hefty pre-5G prototype devices in action, and as well as 5G, the emerging Li-Fi technology will also be tested in indoor environments.

The university’s Smart Internet Lab will establish the network. Among the technologies which will be tested over the course of 2018 will be 5G enablers and enhancers such as Massive MIMO, software-defined networking, network slicing and edge computing.

Future tests will focus on 5G-enabled IoT use cases such as immersive tourism and connected transport.

Paul Crane, head of mobile, wireless and network services R&D at BT’s Technology, Service & Operations (TSO) division, said his team has three main areas of interest in 5G applications – low latency services, such as remote medical diagnostics; virtual and augmented reality, especially for sporting events and live broadcasts; and drone control, especially for the emergency services (EE has the contract to run the UK’s Emergency Services Network). He is also interested in the use of artificial intelligence for automated 5G management; the integration of fixed and mobile infrastructure all the way to the edge; and greater distribution of functions via edge computing.

In future, the initial testbed will be expanded throughout Bristol and other cities in the region.