31 Mar 2021

Diversifying Telecoms event recap: Legacy networks, connectivity demand and future mobility

techUK joined forces with the UK Spectrum Policy Forum for the March Diversifying Telecoms event, which sought to examine the provision of legacy networks, specifically 2G, in the UK and a wider view of connectivity demand that may impact the efforts to diversify the UK’s telecoms networks and supply chain.  

In this event recap, we reflect on the excellent set of presentations from Real Wireless, Gigamon, DCC and the Energy Networks Association, plus highlights from the panel discussions in both the techUK session and Cluster 1 from the UK SPF.  

The potential impact of switching off 2G in the UK

John Okas kicked off the techUK session with an overview of the Real Wireless report for the UK SPF on the impact of switching off—or “sunsetting”—the UK’s 2G network. The 2G sunset will be just that, not an abrupt light switch, but rather a long-term gradual change to help re-farm spectrum, reduce maintenance and testing costs and to create new revenue opportunities. Utilising sub-1 GHz spectrum, 2G has excellent national coverage but is limited to voice, text and low data services, therefore has been seen to decline globally—some of these services have optimal migration options (helped by initiatives like the Shared Rural Network for 4G), however the 2G sunset will impact services like eCall for vehicles, and Smart Metering. M2M services will require long term planning for operators to move ecosystems to new technology and new services. A national 2G network has been suggested as a solution, but questions remain on the practicalities of this, not least how would that be commercially constructed, who pays, and how is it maintained?  

Gigamon’s Martin Hester explored the future of connectivity demand, and specifically what the growth of 5G network deployment can tell us about the future use of our networks. Highlighting that Gigamon’s tools allow the tracking the trend of services being “pushed” to the edge of the network, as well as monitor the significant increase in the number of 5G connections in both the physical, virtual and cloud environments, Gigamon are also deploying visibility for its customers to enable more secure networks, and intelligent traffic management.  

Communications systems in the energy sector

Touching on the broad scope of the UK’s connectivity demand and usage, Mannu Rawat provided an overview of DCC’s Network Evolution Programme, the 2021 project to initiate the supply of new services and technology to ensure the smart metering network evolves intelligently and innovatively. The new business model will also help deliver truly flexible energy systems, with new tech unlocking interoperability and help the smart meter network support reliability. Security is central to both the Programme and the digitisation of other sectors, such as electric vehicle charging, healthcare—plus supporting energy generation.  

Our final presentation of the session was delivered by Lauren Fisher, Resilience Lead in the Strategic Telecommunications Group (STG) at the Energy Networks Association. The STG’s core objective is to maximise the energy networks’ use of telecoms, which the STG identifies as an enabler of Low Carbon energy use, empowering the Smart Grid, and critical to keeping the lights on and the gas flowing.

Resilience is also a key factor, therefore the switch off the PSTN by 2025 is a major focus. As the sunsetting of 2G/3G may coincide with this deadline, the ENA is seeking further clarification and collaboration with government departments and telecoms operators. On spectrum access, the energy industry has contributed to Ofcom’s work on spectrum bandwidth allocation for utilities to use for communication protocols which is ongoing, and a review of requirements is underway.  

techUK panel 

For the techUK panel, we were delighted to welcome Julian Stafford from JRC as well as Adrian Belcher from Gigamon. The discussion touched on some of the lessons to be learned from other energy markets in Europe, which have faced issues with replacing end-points due to network changes; the promise of 5G in terms of connectivity for rail; and the challenges of a national or wholesale 2G network in the UK— the decision of which is not purely technical, as it would have implications for service level agreements for systems like smart meters. Our group of speakers and panellists agreed that further communication between the telecoms and energy sector is crucial for protecting consumers, service reliability and future innovation.  

UK SPF Cluster 1 

Following a short introduction by Saul Friedner, who Chairs the UK SPF Cluster which looks at Future Spectrum Demand, David Wong from SMMT gave an insightful keynote presentation (slides below).  

Delegates were informed that by 2026 all new cars sold in the UK will be ‘connected’, currently it is c80%. He then went on to point out that mobile network coverage on UK roads is limited. For example, based on 2018 data almost 5,540 miles of British roads have no 2G coverage.  

It was noted that for software defined vehicles over-the-air software updates play a fundamental role to enabling services to occur. David then provided a quick overview of the connectivity standards being utilised around the world and noted that they can differ country to country (John Okas put this relevant link in the chat which you may find interesting).  

The potential impact of 2G/3G sunset was explored, this included topics such as eCall and its future, the future of smart charging given that the governments preferred option is off the back of smart meters, many of which utilise 2G, and some telematics and connected vehicle services. David left delegates with questions to ponder including ‘Will there be a sunset roadmap that provides sufficient clarity on milestones and ensures there is no consumer detriment?’ 

Our next keynote was given by Khalid Nur from the Connected Places Catapult. Delegates were informed that transport is changing at an unprecedented rate. From a road infrastructure perspective there is a lot of talk about naked highways, whereby roadside infrastructure is eliminated. This is a highly complex and costly process. Just like for roads rail traffic management requires high data requirements to improve safety, reduce delays and improve performance. To help deliver this the Global System for Mobile Communications-Railway (GSM-R) was deployed at a cost of almost £2 billion. Khalid then noted that the Catapult has done a lot of work with the Department for Transport on ports. Generally, the Maritime sector is seen to be behind with regards to digitisation but it is improving.  

For the UK SPF panel Saul was joined by Toral Patel from PA Consulting, Dave Burstein from Fast Net News and Analysis Branch, and representing 5GAA was Reza Karimi. Dave posed that there is plenty of capacity over the next 5 years. He believes the existing networks are ready for almost everything. Reza presented ‘spectrum needs for ITS’ which finished with the recommendation that the ‘5GAA recommends that national and regional administrations ensure the availability of sufficient spectrum for mobile communication networks in the so-called low-bands and mid-bands for the support of services, including ITS, in the coming decade.’ The following discussion touched on several topics including the relationship between connectivity coverage and its impact on in vehicle services updating, what different services need higher data rates, and alternative connectivity options for services currently running on the 2G network. 

You can find Dave and Reza’s slides below, Toral’s are to follow.  

Thank you to all of our speakers, panellists and attendees. This event was held during techUK's Diversifying Telecoms campaign week - catch up with all of the guest blogs and insights here.

Jo O'Riordan

Jo O'Riordan

Head of Spectrum Policy and Telecoms, techUK

Sophie James

Sophie James

Programme Manager, Communications Infrastructure and Services, techUK

Julia Ofori-Addo

Julia Ofori-Addo

Programme Assistant, BSG, Central Government, Financial Services Team, Comms Infrastructure, techUK