These are busy times for Mitch De Geest, CEO of Citymesh, the telco boat in the Cegeka fleet. At the end of June, De Geest caused a major surprise at the Belgian 5G auction. Citymesh not only acquired the frequencies to roll out a nationwide 5G network, but it also announced a partnership with DIGI Communications, a European telecom player in the consumer market.
Time for a chat!
Congratulations, Mitch, on the results of the Belgian 5G auction. What will change now?
Mitch De Geest: ‘Almost a quarter of a century after the arrival of KPN Orange, there is finally a fully-fledged new fourth telecom player in Belgium. For this purpose, Citymesh has set up a joint venture with DIGI communications, which is already active in Romania, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Rolling out the infrastructure of the new national mobile network: that’s where we are joining forces. Our goal is to create the highest performing 4G/5G network in the country.’
‘Significantly: we each have our own focus. DIGI focuses on the consumer market, at Citymesh the focus is and remains on mobile private networks for the business market: companies, hospitals, campuses, logistics hubs, cities, etc. And this is where we are now taking a big step forward: thanks to the additional spectrum and the new nationwide mobile network, we can now operate a hybrid strategy, from a private to a public network and vice versa.’
Thanks to the additional spectrum and the new nationwide mobile network, we can now operate a hybrid strategy, from a private to a public network and vice versa.
A hybrid network, what does that mean in concrete terms?
Mitch De Geest: ‘This means that employees of sites where we build such a mobile private network will also be able to connect with the same SIM card when they move outside the private network. Think, for example, of logistics centres with trucks driving in and out. It may sound simple, but the seamless connection between an extremely secure local private network and a national public network is no mean feat.’
‘To make all this possible, we already took an important step in 2020. Thanks to an MVNO agreement with Proximus, we can already ensure the connection of our own private mobile networks to Proximus’ national network as of 2023. This will happen at Brussels Airport, among other places. Once we have our own national network, we will be able to use that too. But that network won’t be set up overnight, of course.’
What is to be done now?
Mitch De Geest: ‘We’re starting from a blank page, which is an advantage. In time, we’ll need to do about 4,000 to 5,000 installations, which is 800 a year, which is obviously quite a lot (laughs). These can be masts, but also small cells, which are small boxes that amplify the signal. Not everything has to be built from scratch. For example, we plan to rent space on existing masts. The sale of Telenet’s transmitter masts is also good news for us.’
The press paid a lot of attention to the consumer. Will the consumer notice the difference?
Mitch De Geest: ‘The arrival of a new player usually means that prices will fall, which is good for consumers. I can’t really say more about it yet, except that with DIGI we will be able to make a very attractive offer. We hope to be able to start on this soon.’
With 5G, it will be mainly the business world that will make a quantum leap.
Can you briefly summarise the importance of 5G – and how it differs from 4G and its predecessors?
Mitch De Geest: ‘Certainly. First of all, 5G is a business-oriented technology. You probably know that the even numbers are aimed primarily at consumers, and the odd numbers at business. With 3G, we could suddenly read emails on our smartphones – that was in the BlackBerry era. 4G was all about capacity and that meant Netflix and FaceTiming on a massive scale. With 5G, it will be mainly the business world that will make a quantum leap in all kinds of areas.’
‘In a nutshell, 5G is about three things. One: more bandwidth, making mobile internet faster. Two: low latency, which means that there is virtually no delay on a 5G connection. We’re talking about one millisecond here. Three: a lot of capacity. You can literally connect hundreds of thousands of devices and sensors per base station – whereas with 4G this is limited to a few thousand. This massive connectivity is particularly interesting for IoT projects.’
‘The gist is that with 5G, we can offer rock-solid guarantees for end-to-end connectivity for the first time in history. You can’t do that with Wi-Fi. A 5G network is thus ideally suited for business-critical processes and scenarios where the real-time aspect is really important. For example, you want to be sure that a ten-tonne truck hurtling along at 30 km per hour and controlled remotely via 5G really stops immediately when you press the stop button.
The gist is that with 5G, we can offer rock-solid guarantees for end-to-end connectivity for the first time in history.
How does 5G fit into Cegeka’s Trinity of Innovation story?
Mitch De Geest: ‘There’s in any case going to be an explosion of data – there’s already talk of the ‘Internet of Everything’ where everything is spewing data, and everything is connected to everything. 5G is of course an enabler of that avalanche of data. 5G is the superhighway that gets that data into the cloud, and it’s the computing power in the cloud that allows that mountain of data to be stored cost-effectively, processed, computed on and so on.’
‘In the cloud, decisions can also be made based on that data that are pushed back to the machine. This creates continuous feedback loops between the machines in the network and the cloud, with 5G as a super secure highway. And that mountain of data will eventually become so immense and confusing that you will have to use Artificial Intelligence to extract value from it. This creates a continuous interaction in which machines become smarter and smarter.’
There’s in any case going to be an explosion of data – there’s already talk of the ‘Internet of Everything’ where everything is spewing data, and everything is connected to everything. 5G is, of course, an enabler of that avalanche of data.
Isn’t there already a countermovement from cloud to edge computing?
Mitch De Geest: ‘Partly, yes. There are scenarios where edge computing – where the compute is done close to the source, i.e. the device with the sensor itself or a device nearby – is still mandatory or appropriate. Privacy and GDPR compliance with smart cameras, for example, where video footage should not leave the site. Or scenarios where large amounts of data need to be processed in real time and it is more economical to do so at the edge.’
5G promises the business world unprecedented efficiency gains. In what areas?
Mitch De Geest: ‘The number of applications is only going to increase. In Brussels Airport, where we have installed a private network, more than a hundred use cases have now been detected, and for many of them the threshold in such a network is suddenly very low: smart cameras, drones, pressure sensors, etc. – suddenly it’s all possible. You could say that installing a network in itself can be a huge driver for innovation.’
‘AI, in combination with 5G and the cloud, will bring more operational efficiency. Early detection of errors and anomalies in all kinds of industrial processes and assembly, or remote control are just some of the examples. Take a wind turbine: sending in the right expert by helicopter or boat is slow and expensive, and those people are in short supply. With VR goggles and a 5G connection, you can have an ‘ordinary’ technician remotely controlled by such a specialist, who could be anywhere in the world.’
Are you saying that 5G will help solve the War for Talent?
Mitch De Geest: ‘Actually, yes. For example, we are doing a project where one captain controls five inland barges from a central cockpit, coffee in hand (laughs). The ships sail completely autonomously on the straights, but thanks to AI, the captain receives an alert if something occurs that requires him or her to intervene. On the more difficult stretches, the captain controls the ship remotely. There are many such projects in logistics, from autonomous shared cars to drones.’
‘In the city of Genk, we recently connected a Safety Drone to the city’s 5G network. As soon as a call is received by the fire brigade, the drone, which is always on standby with its batteries charged, will immediately fly to the scene, and transmit images directly to the crews on the way. The majority of these flights are autonomous thanks to the 5G network. A pilot in our Remote Operating Centre (ROC) in Oostkamp oversees all flights and intervenes only when necessary.’
‘Not only does 5G mean that people with certain skills can be used much more efficiently and intelligently, but it also means that people are taken out of potentially dangerous situations, because the machines take over some of the work. That is also our promise to our customers: that they can come to us for any type of connectivity – from 0G to 5G, and Wi-Fi too – and that we will help them achieve greater operational efficiency and a safer workplace.’
Not only does 5G mean that people with certain skills can be used much more efficiently and intelligently, but it also means that people are taken out of potentially dangerous situations, because the machines take over some of the work.
And a quick technical question: the protocol of 5G is largely cloud-native. What does that mean in concrete terms?
Mitch De Geest: "The 5G stack is the first to be cloud-native, i.e. completely independent of hardware. For 4G you need expensive special purpose hardware; for 5G you can work with commodity hardware. A 5G network can be set up and run from the cloud. Thanks to this virtualisation, you can also easily replicate and spin up the core of a 5G network from one or more data centres.’
‘Suppose an airport sets up a 5G network, and places the core network at that same airport. Something occurs that causes the core to stop functioning. At that moment, a core in one of the data centres can take over immediately. This was not the case with the attacks at Brussels airport in 2016: the Wi-Fi network was down, the public network was oversaturated, no one could communicate with each other.’
A 5G network can be set up and run from the cloud. Thanks to this virtualisation, you can also easily replicate and spin up the core of a 5G network from one or more data centres.
The logistics sector has always been at the forefront of private networking. Who will follow?
Mitch De Geest: ‘Hospitals, campuses, and utility companies. Take a hospital, for example: in recent years they have invested heavily in Wi-Fi networks and are now reaching their limits. The Wi-Fi network is used there both by doctors taking MRIs, nurses calling each other via VOIP and the growing group of people – patients and visitors – who call, play games, and watch TV via their iPads or smartphones in droves.’
‘With a 5G network you can regulate this better. You can ‘slice’ the network, i.e. divide it up into sections that are protected from each other and for which you clearly regulate who has access to them. You can provide a slice in such a network that can only be used for business-critical processes, regardless of how much other traffic there is. You will see that in time, hospitals will only use the Wi-Fi network for recreational purposes.’
Last question: where are we headed? Will everything become one big network?
Mitch De Geest: ‘Whereas 5G private networks are currently still for the early adopters, you will see that change soon. At the moment, a lot of equipment is not yet ready for 5G, you also have to take that into account. That is why we are still setting up quite a few 4.9G networks with a migration path to 5G. We therefore recommend that companies do not wait until they have real use cases, but start their project now. They can also apply for grants for this.’
We therefore recommend that companies do not wait until they have use cases, but start their project now. They can also apply for grants for this.
‘And as for the future: yes, everything will become one big network, public and private will merge, there will be more and more small cells that can take both radio frequencies – 5G, 6G and so on – and Wi-Fi. The machines, devices, gadgets – the ‘everything’ in the Internet of Everything – will decide for themselves which connectivity layer to tap into depending on what the purpose is. Connectivity is becoming a commodity, like water or electricity.’