Interdisciplinary research showing the way for 5G micro-operators

Fifth generation mobile networks will soon enable many things that prior technology is not capable of. It also challenges the different vertical sectors to renew their business models

"The starting point is to enable 5G to serve the communication needs of different stakeholders in the best possible way. It has come out in the project that the micro operating model would be a solution that works for many", says university researcher Marja Matinmikko-Blue, who is the coordinator of the flagship of 6G research. 

In practice the micro operator model that a factory, shopping centre, educational institution, or hospital could function as operators of their own 5G networks and build them so that they will suit their specific needs. 

"Local 5G mobile communication networks are new as a topic of research and we are trendsetters in it."

The structure, management, methods of use, and content of wireless services might undergo radical change with the advent of 5G. "Local 5G mobile communication networks are new as a topic of research and we are trendsetters in it", Marja Matinmikko states.

Research from Oulu has had a major role in the development of earlier generations of mobile communication networks. The role remains significant. At the University of Oulu the goal of the 6G Enabled Wireless Smart Society & Ecosystem research flagship includes the development of research results to support regulation in the sector and to affect the future of the whole field.

3.5 gigahertz would bring innovations

The 5G networks, which will soon be launched into commercial use, will augment the previous networks in places were mobile communication networks with high performance are needed. The range of a 5G network, which operates at higher radio frequencies, will be shorter than that of existing networks, which is why the implementation will involve different kinds of local solutions and as indoor networks. There is need for these, as 4G frequencies are congested and mobile data traffic continues to increase. From an outdoor cell tower a 5G signal can cover only a relatively small area.

The first 5G frequencies will be auctioned in Finland in the autumn. A fresh proposal by the Ministry of Transport and Communications calls for giving the 3.5 gigahertz frequency range to national mobile network operators.

"This frequency range would also suit local players, such as micro operators. Unlike the higher 5G frequencies It penetrates structures reasonably well", explains Matinmikko-Blue.

Petri Ahokangas, Associate Professor of international business at Oulu Business School feels that micro operators would generate business. "If the 3.5 gigahertz frequency is given to local stakeholders, they would have the opportunity to bring 5G innovations, new business, and growth to Finland. As a technologically developed country Finland would be an excellent testing environment for 5G applications", Ahokangas says. 

A proposal on the frequencies is being circulated for comment. If a desired frequency is given to national operators, local 5G networks would be implemented as an unlicensed frequency solution similar to WiFi.  Then development involving 5G would not emerge in Finland and in the future we would use solutions developed by others", Ahokangas says.

Decision-makers also reportedly have a desire to promote business activities connected with 5G. When 5G was in the planning stages, it was expected that it would be implemented by the large mobile network operators. Matti Latva-aho, Academy Professor at the Centre for Wireless Communications (CWC) at the University of Oulu, can be seen as the father of the idea of micro operators.

"He has actively promoted the idea and has done a massive amount of work in making it known. For the past two years I have been travelling and speaking about the micro operator model at different fora around the world.  Especially in recent times it has started to awaken keen interest", Matinmikko-Blue says.

There are many variables

Research into the micro operator concept is a complex whole. Spectrum micro licensing models, issues related to value creation and business models, and the economic profitability of micro operations have been studied at the University of Oulu.

The uO5G project at the University of Oulu, which is developing business models for micro operators, has brought forward new models for 5G operations in its research. The uO5G project, which started at the University of Oulu two years ago, is one of the Tekes Challenge Finland projects and is groundbreaking in many ways. 

CWC research supports the development of 5G networks and terminal equipment.  In the university's 5G test network tests have been made on IoT devices and different kinds of components, such as 5G antennas and the signal propagation in different environments. "Many kinds of 5G experiments are under way in different countries", Ahokangas says.

"More than 130 local spectrum licences have been granted in The Netherlands to various stakeholders, which indicates that there really is a need for something like it", Matinmikko-Blue observes. Local experiments are expected to produce new innovations and operator models that can be scaled and duplicated to suit different environments. For instance, the same micro operator could function in different locations of the same store chain around the country.

Many different entities could serve as operators

The micro operator model brings a vast array of different kinds of possibilities into such environments. A 5G network with its services could be implemented by the owner of a building, a user, an IT department, or an outside operator.

"Many good questions have come from stakeholders with different backgrounds, which had never occurred to us."

"One possibility could be that an electric utility could serve as a network operator. The small latency of 5G would enable wireless management of an electrical network for the first time. If an electric utility builds a 5G network, it would be appropriate for it to serve as an operator as well", Ahokangas says. In addition, future solutions of equipment manufacturers would affect the implementation of 5G cells.

The use of 5G networks by national mobile network operators would not necessarily be suitable for all verticals, as there are risks in moving, for example, patient data outside hospitals or business secrets, for example, through the network of another operator, or uploading information into the cloud. 

"The trend is for data to be produced, stored, and processed in the same location. For this reason local data clouds are becoming more common", Matinmikko-Blue says. So the business potential of a micro operator comprises both data transfer and other services enabled by 5G.

Eliminating delay offers many possibilities

The 5G is a tremendous improvement over previous mobile network technologies. Its speed, reliability, and short delay bring plenty of new opportunities for use, as greater numbers of devices have wireless connections. There is plenty of need for mobile data transfers especially in factories in the networking and monitoring of production equipment.

Among other things, the new network technology enables smart traffic, the remote guidance of various devices, and even remote surgical treatment and operations. More ideas are coming all the time.

"Very many good questions have come from stakeholders with different backgrounds, which had never occurred to us", Matinmikko-Blue says. 

Text and images: Sami Korkala

Last updated: 27.6.2018