Germany may have invented the world’s first programmable computer and the mp3 audio format, but has lagged behind in the digital transformation that is radically changing our lives and workplaces. That could change. The country is emerging as a closely watched testing lab for a new super-fast, super flexible mobile technology that could catapult its vast industrial base into the digital age.
The technology, dubbed 5G for fifth generation, is the latest evolution – or better, revolution – of mobile communications. What makes it stand out from previous generations is its potential to connect not only millions of people around the world and provide them with higher speeds to stream HD-quality video or use virtual reality applications on their mobile devices; more importantly, it promises to link trillions of machines, sensors and other devices used in sectors as divergent as manufacturing, logistics, health and energy. The buzz phrases are Industry 4.0 (also known as the “smart factory”) and the Internet of Things. These developments are pushing automation to a higher level requiring even more powerful, denser mobile connectivity, which will also play a crucial role in autonomous cars, androids and drones.
Europe’s largest economy appears to be particularly fertile ground for piloting the new technology.
Although 5G standards are still being hammered out, trials using pre-standardized systems are popping up around the world. Germany, together with other European Union member states, joins the United States, China, Japan and South Korea in the race to capture a chunk of the market for intellectual property, network expertise, device manufacturing and application development. Europe’s largest economy appears to be particularly fertile ground for piloting the new technology, thanks to its vast industrial base of carmakers, component suppliers and machine builders, as well as the many logistics companies moving parts and products around the country.
Last week, Deutsche Telekom demonstrated what it claims to be Europe’s first ultra high-speed, pre-standard 5G antennas in Berlin in a real-world setting. The test achieved speeds of more than 2 gigabits per second, double the previous generation’s top speed, and clocked a latency of 3 milliseconds, rockets faster than 4G’s 50 milliseconds. A demonstration used a video stream to send and superimpose instructions for fixing a communications system to a technician wearing augmented reality glasses.
Telekom board member Claudia Nemat referred to the project as a “very decisive developmental step” on the way to launching 5G networks across Europe by 2020. The technology was supplied by Chinese vendor Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecoms systems that has headquartered its European research center in Munich.
Telekom is currently preparing another pilot in Hamburg for infrastructure systems. It is one of two network architecture pilots to go live next year that are being funded by the European Commission with up to €8 million ($9.5 million) through its Horizon 2020 research program. While a Venice pilot will focus on consumer 5G applications such as virtual reality, the Hamburg project will test how the super-fast and reliable wireless communications system can work in the city’s busy port. One of the technologies being probed there is so-called “network slicing”.
This technology allows operators to split a single physical network into multiple virtual networks to meet specific demands, such as higher data speeds, lower latency or greater security. Telekom, in collaboration with its vendor partner Nokia, claims to be among the first to test this network architecture in a 5G environment.
In August, network operator Vodafone opened its 5G Mobility Lab in the western German city of Aldenhoven. The lab is part of the Aldenhoven Testing Center, which serves as an outdoor lab for probing new technologies such as car-to-car and car-to-cloud communications. The center is operated in collaboration with RWTH Aachen, one of Germany’s top technical universities, with funding from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the federal government.
Related research is underway on a 30 kilometer-stretch of autobahn between Nuremberg and Greding in southern Germany. Several companies, including network operators Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom, Swedish vendor Ericcson, carmaker BMW and the Technical University of Dresden’s 5G Lab, have created an infrastructure and real life application environment to test vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technologies under extreme network loads and at very high speeds.
These and other groups are tapping into the expertise at the Technical University of Dresden, which in 2014 launched one of the world’s first dedicated 5G labs, staffed by 20 professors and more than 500 scientists. Headed by the 5G pioneers Norman Franchi and Frank Fitzek, the lab operates its own test network. It is one of seven city pilots funded by the German transportation ministry. Collaboration plays a big part at the research center: The team of scientists is cooperating with peers in a number of other university and corporate labs, including Bell Labs. One focus of their collaboration with the American group is the evolution of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) technology, a method of encoding digital data on multiple carrier frequencies. Another focus is multiple antenna (MIMO) technology, which combines multiple antennas at each end of the communications circuit to minimize errors and optimize data speed. These are just two of the many deeply geeky technologies required to meet 5G’s ambitious goals.
Because of the role the new wireless technology could play in industry, some groups don’t want to become overly dependent on network operators. Germany’s electrical and electronic association ZVEI has sought permission with the country’s network regulator to apply for licenses to operate its own local 5G networks in factories. Carmakers are also rumored to be interested in 5G licenses – to be assured a spot in the fast lane.
John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Thomas Kuhn covers technology for the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com