When will we be connected by 5G and what does it bring us in the context of the industry of the future and our lifestyle – these are just some of the topics we opened on the 5G.hr portal with the CTIO of A1 Croatia, Branimir Marić.
A1 Croatia received a national concession for the development of the 5G network. How much investment are you preparing and at what stage are they?
A1 Croatia continuously invests in the development of the most modern mobile and fixed infrastructure. We are talking about significant investments and transformation, i.e. the adaptation of the complete network architecture, which has been going on for several years. A1 has already fulfilled one of the requirements from the 3.6 GHz license and installed 5G base stations in county seats – all 20 of them, as well as the City of Zagreb – although the deadline was 31 December 2022. Last summer, the locals and tourists were able to surf the A1 5G network in major tourist destinations such as Dubrovnik, Šibenik, Split, Pula, Zadar, Rijeka, Biograd on the Sea, Trogir, Kaštela and Vodice. Also, the company has undertaken to cover certain rural or hard-to-reach locations that today do not have adequate internet access, which creates the preconditions for economic development and a higher quality of life.
How many consumers are already covered by the 5G network, and how many will be covered in the next three years?
A1 is the only operator in Croatia that uses two frequency bands for 5G: 700 MHz and 3.6 GHz. In this way, maximum indoor coverage is achieved, greater outdoor range with optimal capacity (in the 700 MHz band) and peak speeds reaching 1 Gbit/s (3.6 GHz), while real speeds are still lower. Over time, 5G will be deployed across most frequency bands, including the frequency bands we use for 2G and 3G today. In areas where 5G is available, as much as 20 percent of the traffic comes from 5G users. This is a lot considering that the number of 5G devices in the user base is very low, i.e. slightly less than 8 percent. This tells us that we are still at the very beginning of the exploitation of 5G technology, and that Croatia is not running late. The first indicators from the field and customer satisfaction levels are very good. 5G signal propagation has already reached 50 percent of the population. We will meet the targets and by 2025 we will have 90 percent population coverage in urban areas and 25 percent geographical coverage in rural areas. I would like to point out what is, in my opinion, the only real application of the 5G network today – for the home internet access service where there is no adequate fixed infrastructure, which A1 Croatia was the first and is still the only one to offer on the market.
How much have the pandemic conditions affected the placement of investments?
Despite the past few pandemic years, A1 Croatia remains an investor in the digitalization of Croatia and, accordingly, a reliable partner in meeting the objectives of the National Broadband Plan. The crisis is usually a good time for investment and operators who invest in infrastructure in a crisis come out of it much stronger and more willing to offer advanced services on digital infrastructure. This is a trend that some telecom operators noticed during the last major economic crisis (2010–2011), so they have learned something from it. Those who don’t, emerge from the crisis weaker and unwilling to offer relevant services to end users. The pandemic has changed user habits and led to an increased demand for high-quality broadband internet services (e.g. 1Gbps), and the operators who have invested in this type of infrastructure during the crisis will certainly be rewarded with market success.
The biggest challenge to timely investments in digital infrastructure comes from global markets as supply chains for telecommunications equipment and components such as microchips have completely changed due to the pandemic and then worsened with the distressing events in Ukraine. All of that forced us to invest even smarter and more efficiently. Fortunately, A1 Croatia is part of a large international group whose global influence is significant, which helps us not only to ensure a better position for the procurement of critical components on time, but also favorable procurement contracts. That is why today, with the 5G network, we have the largest and fastest fixed network in Croatia based on fiber optic technology.
Are you facing resistance from the local population in the process of developing the 5G network?
In the absence of verified information, misinformation and conspiracy theories have spread about the 5G network without any scientific basis. The pandemic has shown that telecom infrastructure is of national importance. Many companies, but also individuals, were forcibly digitalized almost overnight. We did everything remotely, from work to school and entertainment. I believe that most people understand how necessary infrastructure is, including base stations. Where there is this irrational fear, we are always available for clarification and education. More verified information on the 5G network and non-ionizing electromagnetic fields can be found on the HAKOM website, which clearly shows that Croatia is in the group of EU countries with stricter prescribed limit values of electromagnetic fields. Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) has published a position on the impact of 5G on health, stating that provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated (“5G mobile networks and health”). Considering the protection of human health, 5G technology is not significantly different from other technologies already in use, such as mobile networks and home Wi-Fi devices. There is no country in the world that has not already deployed or does not plan to deploy 5G technology.
What does the 5G network bring us in the context of new and better services and the development of new technologies and services?
I think that first of all it should be emphasized that 5G is an evolutionary technology that largely continues and relies on the previous generation of mobile technology, i.e. 4G. For instance, 4G and 5G share common radio layers, 5G uses 4G in the so-called non-standalone mode (NSA) for signaling, 4G and 5G share a core network, etc. By comparison, it should be noted that 4G did not rely so much on 3G but brought at the time significant and complete change in the concept of network architecture, associated 3GPP protocols, and digital and modulation techniques. Nothing of this sort has happened with the arrival of 5G so far.
Thanks to the characteristics of the 5G network, primarily the increase in capacity (to 3.6 GHz), it will provide us with stable and reliable mobile broadband access at the Croatian level. It brings slightly higher speeds on frequency bands below 3 GHz, as well as much higher speeds on frequency bands above 3 GHz, primarily due to the fact that a huge spectral resource of 400 MHz is available on that band. Additionally, 5G brings low latency, which will certainly open the door to IoT services in the coming years, though the current 4G latency is not insufficient for the vast majority of existing IoT services.
Full-blown smart city concepts in which almost all devices will be online are unthinkable without a 5G network. Concrete examples of the benefits of 5G have already been demonstrated in Croatia by A1 collaborating with several innovative companies, including Gideon Brothers, DOK-ING, and the business incubator PISMO-Novska powered by A1. One of the most successful manufacturers of autonomous robots in the world, Gideon Brothers, in cooperation with A1, has developed and tested a logistics robot on the 5G network. DOK-ING and A1 presented the first application of 5G technology in the 26 GHz frequency band, thus providing the user with an optical experience via a 2 Gbps mobile network. Participants in the game development program and employees of about 70 startups in A1’s incubator PISMO have at their disposal the most modern access technologies – A1’s gigabit fiber-optic and indoor 5G network, so they can adapt their products to the speeds, latency and other advantages, and be globally competitive. The next phase of 5G network development is the implementation of the possibility of determining a special priority on the network for the needs of individual users, i.e. the so-called network slice.
At the 5G&beyond conference, you pointed out that you expect an increase in the number of connected devices. In which direction is IoT is developing and how will we live in the future?
The general digitalization of society is now underway and people who don’t know how to use the internet are partially outcast. We are facing the development of the Internet of Things and the number of connected devices per household is on the rise. We are currently on 5 and 10 connected devices per household, and not so far in the future, each household will have 50 to 100 connected devices. After 5G comes 6G and with that generation comes an increase in spectrum efficiency, the use of much wider frequency bands and an increase in the number of devices that are connected. For now, we have no idea what it really brings, but I think we are moving towards a fully connected planet and it’s likely there will be no corner of the world that is not connected.
The data on average GB consumption on smartphones shows a rapid growth in data usage in Croatia. How many gigabytes will we need to be able to use all the services in the next few years?
In the last 10 years, we have recorded a continuous increase in data traffic in both mobile and fixed networks, ranging between 25-50 percent a year. Users are becoming more demanding and the services they use, like OTT platforms, generate significant data traffic. Today, the average user of mobile smartphones in the Republic of Croatia uses between 5-10 GB of data traffic per month. The average user of fixed broadband uses between 300-400 GB per month, which largely depends on how we calculate, for example, IPTV traffic. There are also users who consume over 1 TB per month on their fixed broadband connections.
It can be assumed that data usage will continue to grow at a similar pace as before, driven by continued innovation in the segment of smart home devices, OTT services, and some new innovations. Accelerated digital transformation of business and the application of cloud services also require a reliable and secure infrastructure as a guarantee of business continuity. All this generates significant amounts of traffic, and in order for the Internet to work flawlessly today or in a few years, state-of-the-art fiber-optic and radio technologies, as well as data centers, are necessary. With the most modern data center in the region, that is why A1 Croatia is investing in the accelerated construction of fiber-optic and 5G networks.
Everything has become more expensive in Croatia and even in Europe. Will telecommunications services become more expensive?
The COVID-19 pandemic, the earthquakes in Croatia, and now the tragic events in Ukraine have further deepened the global supply chain crisis and the shortage of chips and raw materials. It is becoming increasingly difficult to secure equipment due to delivery delays, but also due to rising prices of procurement and transport. It is uncertain when you will receive some equipment, to what extent and at what price, and the price of transport has increased many times over. The pressure on business is being felt in the telecom sector and the economy overall as many everyday products and services have already become more expensive. Perhaps the best example is the rise in energy prices, especially electricity, which will hit us particularly hard this year and next. The mobile network is particularly sensitive to rising electricity prices, given that today it is its largest consumer in the telecom sector. With inflation and rising prices of materials, the construction and operation of fixed and mobile networks is also becoming more expensive, but, as I mentioned, the fact that we are part of a large global corporation has greatly helped us to withstand at least this part of the pressure, for now.