Interview with Stefan Mauron
The coming generation of mobile technology has much more to offer than just faster data connections. Stefan Mauron, product lead for Wireless Access Innovation and Swisscom’s own 5G evangelist, knows all there is to know about it.
Text: Urs Binder/tnt-graphics AG, images: © Daniel Brühlmann, 13 september 2017
Mr Mauron, what does 5G mean for you and for Swisscom?
5G represents a paradigm shift in many areas. In contrast to previous mobile technologies such as UMTS or LTE, this is not primarily a matter of increasing bandwidth. 5G will make fundamental changes to mobile communications and make new services possible which no-one has yet dared dream of.
What sort of services would these be?
5G can, for example, benefit applications when it comes to guaranteed availabilities, and fulfilling service levels. Just think of major events, for example, where thousands of people gathered in a small space are streaming live videos from their smartphones. The capacity of the mobile network is soon exhausted. Using network slicing, a feature provided by 5G, we can still provide a guaranteed bandwidth to emergency service organisations without having to configure separate networks.
What will be the impact of 5G on industry?
We are setting up the first applications together with partners from industry and the Academy in the «5G for Switzerland» programme to research exactly this. One of the first to be involved is a manufacturer of medical products, Ypsomed. We are digitalising what were previously manual processes there, such as guiding semi-finished products through the production process. Or machine data are analysed in real time using predictive analytics techniques, which make it possible to forecast faults occurring in production. A network will be established for the machine park using the 5G mobile network.
Couldn’t that also be done using a wired network?
Of course it can, and it is also done that way today. However, just imagine a production line that is several hundred meters in length and that encompasses dozens of machines. To network them, Industrial Ethernet is required, and it’s expensive. And it lacks the flexibility required for production sites that need to be converted for product modifications or new products multiple times.
5G will allow machines in production facilities to be moved anywhere they are needed without laying new cables.
How does the machine connection actually function?
We developed a gateway for the mobile network which can transmit any wired connectivity using 5G. For example, you connect it to the Ethernet port of the machine, which you can then move around without routing new cables. This also makes industrial PCs, robots and measuring stations instantly mobile, allowing them to be used more flexibly.
Swisscom has developed the corresponding gateway for connecting the machines.
What else does 5G have to offer?
Edge computing is a new component. This will change the provisioning of cloud services radically: Edge computing relocates cloud resources such as processing power and memory directly to the mobile network’s base stations. This means that the Internet will no longer be needed as a basis for many cloud-based applications. This improves the level of security, and the response times.
What is «Massive IoT» actually good for?
The 5G network will make a drastic increase in the number of devices and mobile network-based real-time applications possible. We are expecting up to 100,000 devices per radio cell, and end-to-end latencies of just a few milliseconds.
And what specific benefits will this provide?
These properties of 5G technology are also useful in industrial applications. There are, for example, machines that deliver data on 1,000 parameters every millisecond – this produces a huge data lake. These data are analysed in real time. This allows forecasts to be made to predict when a given parameter will exceed the tolerance, and allows action to be taken early on. In the past, data like this was only evaluated after the production run.
When will 5G be launched? So far, the wireless interface hasn't even been standardised...
Standardisation is currently proceeding at full speed, and we are expecting an initial standardisation paper at the end of 2017. Swisscom is assuming that 5G will be commercially available in Switzerland from 2020 on.
Will all features of 5G become available at the same time?
No, technologies like NB-IoT or Edge Computing could be introduced earlier. 5G won’t arrive as a big bang, but rather as an evolving technology which will build up on, among other things, 4.5G.
And what will only be introduced later on?
Very high bandwidths in the upper gigabyte range will be implemented in higher spectra and a new air interface. We refer to «new radio» when it comes to cm and mm waves. This requires international harmonisation, followed by approval by the national authorities. These processes are time-consuming and are certain to take until after 2020.
The latest 5G demonstrations show «end devices» several times the size of a refrigerator. Is shrinking these dimensions down to smartphone size by 2020 realistic?
It reassures me that we’re only talking about fridges. The first UMTS device was the size of a station wagon when it was first developed. It is primarily a question of cost: Tests are being run at the moment, and only when the technology is exactly right and all standards are clear will miniaturisation begin. Miniaturisation will then proceed at a rapid pace.
Where are there still problems in relation to end devices?
The MIMO technology (multiple input, multiple output) will be decisive for 5G. In terms of 4G, we refer to 2x2 or 4x4 MIMO antennas, for example. This is also easy to implement in a smartphone. When it comes to 5G, we speak of «massive MIMO» with arrays of 64x64 antennas, for example, or more. To ensure something like this still functions efficiently in a small space, more innovation and development work is required.
We already have LoRa for Industry 4.0. Will 5G supersede this wireless technology?
No, I don’t think so. Instead, there will be different networks in future for IoT applications. On the one hand, there will be 5G technologies such as Narrowband IoT, which is based on cellular systems. On the other hand, there will be networks like LoRa in unlicensed bandwidths. I don’t really think that the competition between them will be keen, because the technologies differ too much, for example in terms of availability, security or costs. What exactly will be used depends on the respective application case – and will often be based on a case-by-case decision. Swisscom offers both.
To finish, a personal question: What does a «5G evangelist» do?
«... he evangelises» (laughing). It’s actually quite simple: My colleagues and I are passionate about the topic of 5G because it will open up fields for new and lucrative business opportunities which will work to the benefit of digitalisation. In industrial environments in particular, many Enterprise customers are venturing into new territory. As a reliable, top technology partner, we want to help them to reap the benefits for themselves. That won’t happen by producing glossy brochures. Instead, it requires that we take steps together with the customer, and we will have to get our hands dirty at times. We needed to start by developing our own hardware and software solutions for the challenges we’re facing. There are no fully-fledged products to buy. At least not yet. And this is the other aspect of it: We will use the new innovations to get the internal organisation fit for the business cases to come.
«We will use the new innovations to get the internal organisation fit for the business cases to come.»
And how did you secure yourself this position?
You can’t just apply for it, because more important than the position is your own mindset and your passion for a topic, because only then will you go the extra mile. Only someone who is brimming with enthusiasm will be able to convince the customer. Letting teams with good ideas get on with their work is part of our corporate culture. This does, however, require a lot of trust, flat hierarchies and straightforward decision-making processes. These aspects, paired with the ambition to be a technological leader, are reasons why I work at Swisscom.
Together with its partners Ericsson and the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), Swisscom is promoting research and development into the next-generation mobile network.
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