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Playing first violin in 5G: The future will be born in Estonia

Corporations and the government are taking steps to make Estonia a leading country for 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT). In 2017, a significant framework contract was signed between TalTech, which offers higher education in tech, and the network operator Telia.

They were joined by the global technology leader Ericsson. One of the most important aspects of this cooperation is to establish a 5G Demo Campus on the territory of TalTech, a meeting place for global and Estonian 5G experts with the aim of creating future technologies. Simultaneously, the Estonian government is about to complete a 5G roadmap establishing future activities and investments that the state is prepared to make. Estonia is already a leader or among the top in the world when it comes to various 5G-related activities.

The Swedish electronics giant Ericsson is carrying out 5G tests in dozens of places all around the world. One of the central countries in this process is Estonia, where the company has a factory and employs over 1500 staff. They have chosen Telia and TalTech to be their main partners. Gert Jervan, Dean of the Information Technology Department at TalTech, says that the interest of leading companies and the know-how and customer portfolio they bring are exactly what Estonia needs.

‘Estonia certainly has some unique sales arguments for why companies should come here to develop 5G-based technologies, but the activities and decisions made by large corporations carry more weight,’ says Jervan. One cannot underestimate that Estonia’s competence in technology is well-known and we also have inhabitants who are very technology friendly. Hence it is easy to develop and implement solutions here. Robert Pajos, COO of Telia Eesti, emphasises Estonia’s innovative attitude which forms the basis for everything. ‘In Telia we have our own programme which supports the development of new ideas by our workers and partners. The Telia corporation has faith in Telia Estonia. They know that we think innovatively,’ claims Pajos and adds that Estonia
has the advantage of a small country – it is easy to implement new things here. He praises the open-mindedness of Estonians and says that an increasing number of company executives are approaching them with questions about 5G and digitalisation. ‘Often we have to tell them that they will be fine with the 4G network, because the benefit of 5G becomes evident in very data-dense places,’ he explains. The biggest benefit of 5G is seen in industry, in automation.

5G opportunities showcased in Estonia

Estonia was one of the first known countries in the world where 5G solutions were demonstrated in real life. Two historical events took place in September 2017. First, Telia, Ericsson, Tallink and Intel tested the 5G network on the territory of the Port of Tallinn. Passengers of the Tallink ships in the port found out what it is like to use extremely rapid internet in a 5G network.

‘We are the first known companies in the world to bring data volumes to regular users via 5G technology, and to date, thousands of Tallink clients have used this opportunity. This is even more significant as all our 5G tests to date have taken place with a moving, not stationary, terminal,’ says Dan Strömberg, former Chairman of the Board of Telia Eesti, with pride.

First global presentation in Tallinn

Then came the end of September and some global leaders arrived in Tallinn from all corners of the world for The Digital Summit. Again, Telia and Ericsson wanted to demonstrate something special. For the first time ever they demonstrated how an excavator connected to the 5G network was operated from a distance. The movements of the driver started the machine as if he had been inside the cabin operating it himself. This demonstrated one of the most amazing characteristics of 5G – its non-existent latency.

Hence it was demonstrated in Estonia what the usage of virtual- and augmented reality in daily life might look like in the near future. This creates the opportunity to carry out work in dangerous conditions without people having to be present. A person can be in any part of the world and still get the work done.

Estonian-Swedish breakthrough

Researchers from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) demonstrated a 4000-km fibre-optic transmission link, which will increase the quality of data transfer, as well as television, radio, mobile- and internet connections. This breakthrough in fibre-optics made by Estonian and Swedish scientists is essential, for example, in long-distance drone operations in dangerous environments as well as for cloud data storage, 3D video and virtual reality applications: in situations where high-volume and time-critical data transmission is necessary. Researchers as well as leading IT and electronics minds all over the world are looking for this kind of new, trendsetting technology, making the achievement of Swedish and Estonian scientists, which was also published in the magazine Nature Communications, even more noteworthy.

Elisa organised a 5G concert

The other large mobile operator in Estonia – Elisa – is not resting on its laurels either. There is something of a marketing war between the mobile operators: who will be the first to establish a proper 5G test network? Taavi Teder, Elisa’s media relations specialist, claims that they were the ones to have opened the first still operational 5G test network in Estonia – in 2018. Elisa has carried out many tests with 5G, which encompass user experience and research into real cases of usage. Last year, the world’s first country-to-country video call was made in their 5G
test network between Estonian and Finnish ministers.

‘We collaborated with the Estonian Music and Theatre Academy in organising a 5G concert that linked Tallinn and Setomaa and allowed musicians to make music together via low latency from a 300-kilometre distance,’ says Teder. Hence, thanks to 5G technology, musicians in two distant locations were able to give a concert together and it sounded as if they were performing on the same stage.

Demo Campus brings know-how together

5G needs the creators of appliances and solutions. On its own, 5G has no special value. Gert Jervan from TalTech explains that this is why the university has created the Demo Campus, in order to bring together companies that want to create solutions based on 5G technology. There is no reason for a situation in which good ideas are not brought life due to a lack of courage or leading know-how.

‘We have the technology, the previous experience and people who are skilled at implementing it. If someone has an idea or a prototype, it is possible to test it together with us,’ explains Jervan. However, TalTech is not just relying on the activeness of others. In collaboration with several Estonian companies they created the self-driving car “Iseauto”. In addition, TalTech is interested in smart traffic environments and smart buildings and their researchers are actively working on these areas. This has brought great competency to the university, which they want to share. One of the most important areas of work at the university will be 5G and the security questions connected to it.

Secure 5G is a topic for Estonia

Toomas Kärner, manager of Telia IoT field, says that one of the most important questions related to 5G is security. Often, Telia holds back from creating solutions because they want to be certain that the solution is secure. ‘We have to feel that it’s all good. Security is part of design and there must be several layers of it,’ explains Kärner. Kärner adds that bringing technology online is not equivalent to uploading a photo of your cat. It is an activity that entails extreme responsibility. This relates to one of the biggest challenges for IoT – manufacturers of appliances
who have never previously produced anything for the net, are now doing so. But there is not enough knowledge about security. ‘A large proportion of them cannot calculate the risks. A producer of a smart kettle has never been in the digital world before. Hence, we have to be extremely selective with our partners,’ explains Kärner.

The question of security is also emphasised by Erki Kõiv, Chairman of the Board and Sales Manager of Ericsson Eesti. He says that as 5G will be mostly used in critical fields, it is pivotal that data is not lost or manipulated.

Kõiv recalls a speech by former Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves in which he brought a great example. Let’s imagine that someone publishes their blood group on Facebook. It may be a little unpleasant but nothing bad will happen. But let’s imagine someone hacks into a national database with people’s blood groups and changes the data there. If someone needed a blood transfer, it would have fatal consequences. ‘This demonstrates how critically important the question of security is,’ comments Kõiv. A leading global player in data security – Guardtime – comes from and operates in Estonia. Guardtime offers blockchain solutions. We also have other companies for whom data security is the core focus.

Estonian state prepared to invest

The Government of Estonia and various interest groups have been preparing a document that will set the direction for Estonia in the field of 5G. How can the state help with the development of 5G? What will the state invest in? The document is titled: “Estonian 5G Roadmap until 2025”. With this document, Estonia sets the target of developing 5G connectivity in a way that will enable the free movement of data, development of innovative services and the usage of artificial intelligence. More specifically, Estonia sets the aim of achieving 5G connectivity in its
larger cities and suburbs by 2023 and in transport corridors by 2025. The document states that Estonia considers it important to have a clearer legal environment, to take radio frequencies into use, investments into infrastructure and creating opportunities for the development of innovative services.

The state’s investment in technological development is nothing new in Estonia. Nearly 7000 kilometres of a basic network has already been built with public money. This decision, made some time ago, was a right one because, on one hand, our rural areas would not have fast internet without it and, secondly, this investment gives a good opportunity to invest in 5G infrastructure and services. New financial investments will be large-scale, as documented in the roadmap.

Special emphasis on transport corridors

It is no wonder that one focus for 5G in Estonia is transport, more specifically securing 5G capacity for big roads. For example, coverage of the Via Baltica road, which connects the three Baltic states in a way that will accommodate self-driving cars in the future. Also, the grand project of the Baltic states in this century – Rail Baltica railway – may benefit from 5G-related services.

In addition to transport, Estonia wants to develop 5G services and a special focus will be given to security-related projects and Smart City solutions.

Smart city solutions on the way

Gert Jervan from TalTech believes that it is precisely 5G smart city solutions that regular people will notice and feel the benefits of the most. 5G enables an extremely large amount of data to be gathered per unit of volume. 4G and earlier generations were unable to do that.

‘This will create a situation in which people use smart appliances. We will receive more data from the environment and this will increase our quality of life,’ believes Jervan. He says that the more information we have, on the basis of which we can make decisions, the smarter those decisions will be. Take public transport or monitoring city air quality, as an example.

Erki Kõiv, member of the Board of Ericsson Eesti, introduces an interesting and very topical theme for Estonia. Lack of the labour force. How will 5G and the Internet of Things alleviate that? He brings the example of the USA, which has about three million truck drivers. When we introduce self-driving vehicles, the labour market will have a significant number of new people. ‘Each step of this kind will help solve the burning issue of how will we manage in the future,’ he says.

Tallinn 5G Declaration

Estonia made excellent use of its Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2017. In the beginning of that period, the EU telecommunications ministers signed the Tallinn 5G Declaration in Estonia. This laid the groundwork for the development of 5G networks and the creation of investment security in Europe. In addition, a pan-European detailed 5G Action Plan was agreed. It is planned to have 5G connectivity in the large cities and main transport roads of each EU member country by 2025.

The moment when the first 5G frequency licenses, ranging between 3400 and 3800 MHz, will be issued has been long-awaited. It will happen in spring 2019. A year later, the same process will be repeated for 694-790 MHz frequency licenses. This will be followed by 24.25-27.5 GHz and, if needed, 40.5-43.5 and 66-71 GHz frequency licenses.

Why is this an important process? Because it is a precondition for the transition to a 5G connection and creates the right environment for the development of networks and services.

Something exciting always happens in Estonia

Technologically speaking, Estonia is an exciting country. Robert Pajos from Telia says that different delegations make regular visits to Estonia; the country is well-known. He brings an example of his own trip to Colombia a decade ago, where he talked to the IT minister who told him that he had been to Europe only twice and both times to Estonia because he wanted to see the best of the best.

‘Estonia is securely on the IT map and this is the cool thing about working here: that there is constantly something exciting going on,’ says Pajos.

In terms of 5G, Pajos has one concern. He foresees that once it becomes successful and new services and products reach the masses, it will create an even bigger digital gap than we have known to date. Those who go along will benefit more and those who stay behind will be left even more behind.

Does 5G and the IoT constitute a revolution? Our experts agree. 5G created the preconditions for revolutions to happen, but it is not one in itself. The revolution of the Internet of Things is already in process, as proven by the fact that more and more connected appliances already exist. It is clear, however, that each year the number of such appliances will increase.

Estonia wishes to be one of the countries that plays first violin.

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