5G Networks in Portugal: The Opportunity for the Digital Transition

  • Luís M. Correia
  • 13 January 2021

The opportunities that are opened by 5G for the digital transition are endless and no one can afford to be left out.

The auctions for spectrum leading to the 5G (5th generation of mobile communications systems) deployment in Portugal are currently being held, and it can be expected that its commercial launching occurs during this first semester of 2021. Contrary to previous generations, the main users of this new system will not be consumers with their smartphones but rather businesses with their generalised IoT (Internet of Things) implementations, because the new features are really targeting the latter. This enables a true revolution in many businesses, by establishing the conditions for the operation of their own private networks (based on a new technology, designated by network slicing), together with private networks for critical infrastructures and communications, creating the conditions for the real digital transition.

5G offers advanced features along three axes that are significantly better (at least 10 times) than current ones: EMMB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband), i.e., increased data rates that can go up to 10 Gbps (Giga bit per second); URLLC (Ultra-High Reliability Low Latency), i.e., reduced latency down to 1 ms and increased availability up to 99.999%; MMTC (Massive Machine-Type Communications), i.e., increased connectivity capacity up to 1 million devices per square kilometre. Although these features will benefit the way that consumers communicate and live, still, one cannot really take advantage of these “extreme” values for a human usage. In fact, it will be up to businesses to make use of these new features to contribute to the always present goals of cost reduction (by implementing ways for the improvement of efficiency in their internal processes) and sales increase (by developing new services and products for both other businesses and consumers).

The usage of private networks opens a new world for businesses, since an organisation can contract a network slice to an operator and use it for its own purposes and/or for the provision of services to its customers/users. The difference between the current situation and 5G is that the set of characteristics enabled by the latter allow for an effective implementation of new services: the high data rate, the high capacity of connected devices and the low latency enable to serve terminals with the required service characteristics that are not possible these days.

In Portugal, one can expect that many economic sectors (both public and private) that are general to all countries will include the full extent of 5G in their products and services, as for example: transportation, where vehicles tracking and routes optimisation can be taken to a much higher level, but where services to passengers can be improved immensely (not only in terms of internet access but also entertainment for long-distance travel); health care, where the usage of clothes with sensors enable to monitor patients (from chronical diseases to early post-surgery recovery at home), and where extended remote services can be provided (including remote surgery and much more effective teleconsultation).

But it is in some industrial manufacturing sectors that play a key role in Portugal, from cars to textile and footwear, and encompassing agriculture products (olive oil and wine, for example), that 5G enables a fundamental change in the full production process, from tracking raw materials to product distribution, including improved manufacturing and quality control. The IoT component will be of paramount importance, by enabling the generalised usage of sensors and actuators and by generating data in basically all application areas, leading to the spreading of other technologies that are also fundamental for the digital transition, such as advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.

Portugal needs also to take advantage of 5G to implement effective communications for critical infrastructures, an example being railways; currently, the railway network is not entirely covered by a mobile communications system, and the existing one is based on a 2G (second generation) system, which is quite limited and does not enable a proper transmission of data at rates required for the implementation of many of the services that should be deployed. Additionally, Portugal has a communications system (designated as SIRESP) for polices, fire departments, civil protection and critical infrastructures that is also based on 2G technology, hence, suffering from the same problems as the railways one; again, an upgrade to 5G is imperative in this area.

But, there are barriers in the uptake of 5G. The generalised usage of 5G IoT needs to have very low-cost terminals with sensors and actuators (given the scale with which they will be used), and the very diversified application areas will be an obstacle for the mass production of general devices. Reaching the many different businesses with appropriate solutions will be very much different from selling smartphones to the consumer market.

Still, the opportunities that are opened by 5G for the digital transition are endless and no one can afford to be left out.

  • Luís M. Correia
  • Professor at IST (University of Lisbon) and Researcher at INESC