Exclusive: How the Monaco Grand Prix inspired the country to win the 5G race

Monaco is the first fully 5G-connected country in the world. That means if you have a 5G phone, a 5G connection (and therefore super-fast download speeds) will accompany it anywhere in Monaco. It sounds small, but 5G is rolling out in small areas of select cities around the world, so at the moment it’s impossible to get a complete 5G experience outside of Monaco. What drove the country to adopt the next-gen network so quickly?

“It’s the Grand Prix that brings a sense of urgency to launching 5G in Monaco,” Martin Péronnet, CEO of Monaco Telecom, told Digital Trends in an interview at the company’s headquarters, less than two weeks after its 5G service went live.

Martin Peronnet
Martin Peronnet Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

That’s right, the world’s most prestigious motor race was instrumental in introducing the world’s most exciting mobile network technology in Monaco. And all of this happened in an astonishingly short amount of time.

Genesis

Monaco is not your usual country as it’s not very big at all. It’s actually smaller than Central Park in New York, but it’s still home to almost 40,000 people and another 70,000 people come to Monaco to work each day — it’s one of the few places that has more jobs than residents.

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While 5G will bring new opportunities to everyone there, it was the annual Formula One Grand Prix that shaped Monaco’s 5G endeavour. It launched on July 10 after two months of hard work — an incredibly fast turnaround — made possible by a vital partnership and meticulous planning. Monaco Telecom worked with Huawei to make its 5G network a reality, and it’s solely powered by the Chinese company’s network infrastructure.

“Monaco is sometimes the busiest place in the world, in terms of mobile usage, and that’s typically during the Grand Prix,” Péronnet said. “It’s really one of the most challenging events to cover with telecommunications. There is so much usage, and each year we continuously rework our network to serve the 50% more usage we get. We knew our 4G network would not be enough in two years time.”

“Monaco is sometimes the busiest place in the world, in terms of mobile usage, and that’s typically during the Grand Prix”

Implementing a 5G network is not easy, but Monaco was prepared and has been at the forefront of some serious mobile tech breakthroughs already — key to 5G’s rollout.

“For the last four years, our strategy has been to be in the leading position for new technologies,” he said. “We were the first to introduce 450Mbps speeds on 4G, and the first in the world to launch 1Gbps on 4G in 2017. We have done a lot of work to modernize the network.”

This forethought is important, along with the introduction of tech like 4×4 MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output), and key to Monaco Telecom’s 5G launch going smoothly. Long trials were shunned and the focus was always on the commercial launch. Why the rush? Introducing 5G is essential to make sure everyone in Monaco during future Grand Prix will be able to enjoy a good connection. At least 200,000 people attend the Monaco Grand Prix weekend, and as you’d expect, photos and videos are constantly shared, and the level of activity is only going to increase.

Huawei, and hard work

The Grand Prix didn’t just dictate Monaco’s need for 5G — it even dictated when work on deploying the Huawei infrastructure and equipment could start. Astonishingly, work began just two months before the July 10 switch-on, and the final base station was installed only two days before that date.

“We couldn’t work on the network before the end of the 2019 Grand Prix,” Péronnet said. “Because it’s so busy, we cannot touch [the network]. In fact, each year we redesign it to make it Grand Prix-ready, and when it’s all over, it’s put back into its normal configuration.”

This tight timeframe was oddly advantageous, because it allowed Monaco Telecom to use the newest Huawei equipment and the latest commercial versions of the 5G technology, which only came along in June. Martin admits all this wouldn’t have been possible in a country any bigger than Monaco. However, there are still 23 sites that needed to be equipped with 5G antennas, and six tons of hardware was used, some of which had to reach some challenging places.

5G antenna
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

For example, one base station is found on the side of a cliff and accessed by climbers, while another is hidden on top of the old town’s cathedral — which required a crane and serious negotiation with authorities to place. Another antenna is on the Monte Carlo Casino, which was problematic due to specific network interference issues. Remember, all this and a lot more was completed in two months.

Keeping the network secure

To launch a full 5G network so fast required hard work, a strong partnership, and plenty of trust. Péronnet described Monaco Telecom as one of the smallest carriers in the world while pointing out its partner Huawei is one of the biggest mobile technology companies in the world; yet the two teams worked well together.

“They’re very good on mobile; they’re very reliable, and they like challenges,” he said about Huawei. Apparently, engineers in both Monaco and China didn’t sleep for a week during the final stages of the project — such was the drive to complete it. “It’s good to know you can rely on the company you need to achieve things with, and it gave us confidence,” he added.

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He explained that using only one manufacturer’s equipment is important on a small network like Monaco Telecom, as multiple vendors complicate the process. My interview came on the same day the U.K. announced a continued delay in choosing providers for its own 5G network infrastructure and additionally stated concerns over the availability and reliability of Huawei technology due to the firm’s presence on the Entity List in the U.S.. Was this a concern for Monaco Telecom?

“Not on 5G,” he told me. “But we are concerned. We are a small country, and we can’t influence the world. Nobody really cares about the decisions Monaco is making, as it doesn’t have a consequence for the rest of the world. We are faced with this uncertainty, and in business you don’t like uncertainty.”

“The main issue isn’t about people spying, it’s about security breaches.”

Monaco Telecom takes its network security seriously. Like the U.K., it has a security center that tests infrastructure equipment.

“Security applies to all,” he said. “The main issue isn’t about people spying, it’s about security breaches. We’ve been working a lot with the government and Monaco’s security agency to try and define a fortress around our equipment, to monitor individually each piece. This applies not only to Huawei, but all.”

I asked if Monaco residents have ever expressed concerns over security and the use of Huawei equipment in light of the recent events and heightened media coverage. After all, the country has the world’s highest average income and one-in-three of its residents are millionaires. These are the kind of people that demand security, hence the Principality having one policeman for every 100 residents.

“Not specifically,” Peronnet said. “The security concern exists here, as it does everywhere.”

Staying on the subject, Peronnet was quick to add that Monaco is not breaking new ground using Huawei equipment, which puts security concerns into context.

“We’re not making a choice that no-one else has,” he said. “Huawei is the number one network provider in Europe, and Monaco Telecom is not big enough to help it achieve that.”

5G Grand Prix

What’s next for Monaco Telecom? The launch will make the 2020 race the first 5G Monaco Grand Prix. Does that mean there will be specific 5G-centric plans for the race? Péronnet believes it’s a little too early for that, but is open to doing something.

Monaco Grand Prix
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“If there are some use cases that make the race safer because of 5G, why not?” He said. This would still need the Formula One Association and the Automobile Club of Monaco’s involvement. However, he sees greater advantages coming in 2021.

“By this time there will be roaming agreements between operators, so visitors will be able to roam on 5G,” he said. “The line-up of handsets will be much larger, and the costs will have dropped.”

“The line-up of handsets will be much larger, and the costs will have dropped.”

For these reasons, he expects 5G phones to take at least 10% of the traffic during the race weekend, which will also take load away from the 4G network, resulting in a better connected experience at the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix for everyone.

How about the network itself? Increasing the density of coverage outside and advancing the indoor coverage is on the agenda. The network operates on the 3.5GHz bandwidth, making it difficult for the signal to penetrate buildings.

“We still have a long way to go in order to provide great indoor coverage with 5G,” Péronnet said. “It will need specific hardware, which is coming, but not ready yet.”

The 5G iPhone, and the future

How about the smartphones that receive the 5G signal? Currently, Monaco Telecom offers the Huawei Mate 20 X 5G and the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G. However, while both are very good devices, Péronnet told me that Monaco adores the iPhone, and inhabitants may be waiting for Apple to enter the 5G race.

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Apple

“[It will be] huge. Decisive,” Péronnet said about the potential of a 5G iPhone. “Monaco is 80% iPhone. When Apple releases a 5G iPhone, 5G in Monaco will skyrocket.”

Apple is rumored to launch a 5G iPhone in 2020, so for now the line-up is Android only, but there are no current promotions running to convince people to adopt Android instead. Péronnet believes people should make their own choice, and that feeling at ease with their phone is more important than pushing them to make a switch. While Monaco has early adopters, they are not ones who are keen to test or deal with bugs. This emphasizes the importance of launching a reliable 5G network quickly.

The 5G experience, delivered

Over the course of an afternoon, evening, and following morning I tested out Monaco Telecom’s 5G network on a Huawei Mate 20 X 5G. The experience displayed the promise we all expect from 5G, but has not always been evident in early tests elsewhere. The speeds were consistently impressive, ranging between 500Mbps to over 1Gbps, but what was most noticeable was the reliability and breadth of coverage.

5g in monaco with huawei interview testing ab feat

I walked around Monaco’s main town, taking in the Monte Carlo Casino, the world-famous harbor which becomes the pit lane during the Grand Prix, and up the hill past La Rascasse and towards more residential areas, throughout which the 5G signal remained constant. Each test I performed along the way showed I was getting 5G, rather than 4G speeds with a 5G network indicator on the phone. Although I could only browse and view YouTube videos on the phone, rather than anything more complex, it was seamless, speedy, and a wonderful thing to use.

The 5G signal struggled to work indoors, and my hotel only served 4G speeds, but a 5-minute walk saw 5G quickly return. Not that 4G is a problem in Monaco, and the speeds I achieved still regularly reached 300Mbps.

It’s a deeply impressive feat to have 5G coverage like this so quickly, in a challenging environment, and Monaco truly provides the first proper glimpse of the 5G world we have been teased with for several years.

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