The arrival of 5G has long been earmarked as a critical moment in technological advancement. Much more than just super-fast mobile connectivity, the fifth generation of cellular networks has the potential to unlock new possibilities to transform how people live their lives, businesses operate, and cities function.
The infrastructure remains in its infancy; although the rollout of 5G networks across the UK began in 2019, it will still be some years before they reach maturity. The Government has set a target of ensuring the “majority” of the country has access to 5G by 2027.
Yet as masts are erected and upgraded, 5G is expected to deliver speeds up to 100 times faster than typical 4G technology, with mobile internet speeds of more than 10 gigabits per second (Gbps).
Much of the noise in the public domain will naturally focus on what the upgrade from 4G will mean for consumers – seamless streaming, downloading and browsing on the go.
However, 5G’s true potential lies in how it will enable other technologies and trends. Indeed, a 2019 survey by Ericsson among executives from 100 global telecom operators found that 92% believe the most important 5G feature is the way in which it will pave the way for emerging technologies.
Chief among them is the Internet of Things (IoT) – physical devices around the planet that are connected to the internet, thereby enabling them to relay data, communicate information and receive instructions.
Peter Mildon, Co-founder and COO of Vivacity Labs, says: “The main benefits of a 5G rollout will be realised by machine to machine communications – systems where the latency change from 0.2 seconds to 0.02 seconds is critical. Any system which is requiring near-instantaneous feedback will benefit from this, whether it is traffic signal control, autonomous driving, or remote surgery robots.”
Dr David Hardman MBE is managing director of Bruntwood SciTech in Birmingham, the UK’s leading provider of office and lab space to the science and tech sector as well as tailored business support, such as access to finance, talent, markets and mentorship. The Innovation Birmingham campus in the Bruntwood SciTech network is also home to an innovation centre for 5G technologies.
David states that 5G, while not a disruptive technology in itself, is nonetheless a crucial “step-jump within an existing disruption”: namely, the advancement of mobile connectivity and smart devices. He sees the arrival of 5G as an “enabler for superior data management, which influences our daily lives”, adding that new technologies on the horizon – such as autonomous vehicles, smart ambulances and robotic surgery – will only be possible with faster mobile connections available.
Investing in the digital infrastructure
Before exploring the new opportunities that will be created by its arrival, it is important to first establish how 5G is being rolled out across the UK. And in recognition of the huge potential of 5G, the UK Government has been investing heavily in the infrastructure required to beckon in the next generation of mobile connectivity.
In 2018, the National Infrastructure and Construction Pipeline outlined 11 digital infrastructure projects and programmes with a total value of £6.8 billion. These projects are geared towards 5G deployment to the majority of the country by 2027, as well as nationwide full fibre coverage by 2033.
Building on this, in February 2020, digital secretary Oliver Dowden announced a £200 million investment in the 5G Testbeds and Trials programme (5GTT), which will explore new ways that 5G can boost business growth and productivity, improve the lives of people in rural areas, and maximise the productivity benefits of new technologies.
More recently still, in July six research and development projects utilising 5G technology were awarded government funding as part of the 5G Create competition. The projects will receive a share of £30 million in funding from the 5GTT pot, which has already been used to set up 24 new 5G testbeds across the country, trialling almost 70 different 5G technologies, products and applications.
Dr Hardman explains: “5G testbeds are crucial. The art of the possible is what you are looking for; if you are developing high-quality services around 5G, they need to be ready for the market once the rollout takes place. That is only going to be possible when you can test it and truly understand its potential.”
To that end, specialist testing sites have been created across the UK using public and private sector funding. These dedicated buildings or areas boast true 5G connectivity and, using that digital infrastructure, allow other organisations to develop new technologies and systems as if they were operating in a 5G-ready landscape.
“The idea of testbeds and accelerators like those provided by Bruntwood SciTech is to bring together hundreds of organisations to sample what 5G can offer. Businesses will then go away and develop new technologies with 5G as part of their thinking.”
Primarily, the Government’s strategy for the implementation of a nationwide 5G network has been to channel state funding into individual regional rollouts, as demonstrated by the project-based approach of the 5GTT and 5G Create initiatives.
West Midlands 5G (WM5G), which launched in early 2019 and was borne out of the 5GTT programme, is a prime example of this approach. Robert Franks, Managing Director of WM5G, explains that the organisation has two key objectives: “Firstly, we are tasked with accelerating the network rollout across the West Midlands; we want to build the UK’s most connected region, and we want as many people, businesses and public sector organisations as possible to benefit from this exciting new technology.
“The second goal is to bring together trialist and technology organisations to test, prove and scale new 5G services for both the public and private sectors in the West Midlands.”
Based on recent data, the West Midlands is leading the way when it comes to 5G coverage. At 7.34% (and 11.19% in Birmingham) it has the highest proportion of people with access to 5G of any UK region. However, the figures also underline the significant work still to be done in fast-tracking the digital infrastructure for 5G usage.
Unlocking the potential of IoT
Much progress is still to be made. Nevertheless, over the coming years, as masts are installed and upgraded, 5G will play a significant role in changing the lives of consumers and businesses.
Most notably, it has been heralded as a vital step in unlocking the potential of the IoT – an already well-established field of digital innovation, which has increasingly seen everyday objects fitted with sensors and technology that allow them to connect to the internet.
Tech analyst company IDC has predicted that there will be more than 41 billion connected IoT devices, or “things”, around the world by 2025. And in the years ahead, 5G will be a crucial role in opening new possibilities in this space.
By providing more reliable and significantly faster mobile connections, 5G will ensure greater volumes of data can be handled by IoT devices: everything from cars and fridges to lampposts and CCTV cameras. The ability to collect, transfer, analyse and take action from vast mounds of data – something that is presently not possible due to slower connections – will in turn allow for far more sophisticated use cases within the IoT.
Examples are already abounding across the UK.
The transport industry is primed for 5G and IoT disruption. By enabling cameras and sensors to relay data about what is happening on the roads in real-time, swift action can be taken – or automated – to greatly improve the efficiency of transport systems.
Smart Junctions 5G, a collaborative project between Vivacity, Weaver Labs and Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM), offers a clear example of this. Building on the existing Smart Junctions project, this new chapter to the initiative aims to deliver AI-powered traffic control systems in order to reduce congestion and pollution, as well as improving productivity by cutting waiting times at traffic signals.
Vivacity’s Peter Mildon states: “As an innovative transportation authority, TfGM looks to embrace new technology to provide services in a smarter, more efficient way while also minimising costs – 5G is the logical next step to provide seamless connectivity to the people of Greater Manchester and improve the efficiency of public authority systems.”
Weaver Labs has been charged with creating a private 5G network, which will allow for wireless communications between sensors and a cloud-based AI decision maker for the Junction. “This use case needs very low latency communications to work,” Peter says. “By removing the need for wired connections, the cost of deploying the Smart Junctions product will be reduced.”
The Smart Junctions 5G project delivers many benefits. Peter explains: “There is a compelling return on investment for the capital needed to roll out the system, as an economic value can be assigned to the productivity savings in reduced waiting time, and green policy deliverables in prioritising cyclists and walkers. The system also removes the need to re-calibrate traffic junctions, something that currently puts a revenue burden on local authorities.
“The learning and expertise will also help TfGM better understand the opportunities of this technology, building a lasting connectivity corridor for future technological trials – the Smart Junctions project could offer a blueprint to be replicated and scaled across the Greater Manchester region.”
Projects such as Smart Junctions 5G underscore why the next generation of mobile connectivity has been hailed as the forebearer of smart cities. Turning cities ‘smart’ has become a watchword among both national and local governments around the world; the goal is to use data, sensors and connected devices to improve government services and residents’ quality of life through analytics and automation.
WM5G’s Robert Franks notes that the organisation has piloted its own smart junction project with Vivacity, which is now due to be rolled out across the region in the coming year.
Franks also offers a second example of 5G’s impact on the transport sector: WM5G has teamed up with AppyWay and Vodafone to run a trial wherein cameras were placed on council vehicles as they drove along the streets of Birmingham performing their usual day-to-day duties. These cameras were used to spot car parking spaces, and this information could then be made available to motorists in the area.
“At the moment, it takes people an average of six minutes to find a parking space in a town or city,” Franks says. “But by having cameras on these vehicles, which are traveling the streets anyway, you can build up a real-time picture of where there are free spaces – this saves motorists time and petrol, and crucially this solution is achieved at a fraction of installing sensors in parking bays.”
Again, 5G’s role is that of an enabler – by allowing for more responsive, automated and informed decisions to be made across entire cities, not only will consumers and businesses benefit, but the environmental impact would also be significant. According to O2, 5G will help to remove 181 megatons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2035.
The healthcare sector stands to be another leading beneficiary of 5G technology. Indeed, David Hardman from Bruntwood SciTech says: “Medicine will see a lot of interesting use cases. There could be huge advances in areas such as augmented reality, which will allow for robotics and acute surgery in a way that simply cannot be done at the moment.”
Robert Franks offers one such example of this in action. “The problem at present is that ultrasound cannot be carried out by a paramedic at the scene of an injury or in an ambulance,” he explains. “You have to be a qualified doctor and you have to do them regularly to understand what you’re looking.
“However, a year ago WM5G ran the UK’s first 5G ultrasound trial with University Hospitals Birmingham and BT. We demonstrated the potential for a 5G network to connect a doctor in a hospital with a paramedic in an ambulance many miles away.
“By relaying the images in real-time and connecting a joystick to a haptic glove worn by the paramedic, the doctor could guide them remotely through an ultrasound scan on the patient, enabling a more accurate diagnosis of the problem. This would not have been possible using 4G as it’s simply not fast enough.”
WM5G is also exploring how 5G can be used to better connect doctors and clinicians with elderly people in care homes. “Much more than a video consultation, 5G can allow us to measure so many aspects of a patient’s health and make more informed decisions,” Franks explains. “Given the coronavirus pandemic has underlined how we do not want to be transporting elderly people in and out of hospital unnecessarily, this solution clearly has huge relevance in improving social care.”
5G, collaboration and COVID-19
As the examples above demonstrate, for 5G and IoT to thrive, collaboration between academia, public and private sectors is key.
For one, public investment into digital infrastructure is essential to ensure the 5G rollout happens at pace and to a high quality. But thereafter, if 5G’s position as an “enabler” is to be realised, private businesses and public sector groups must work together.
Dr Hardman says that one of the keys is establishing the right use cases for the technology in the first instance. He states that the NHS and the education sector are common examples of where this can often be misjudged.
“In the hunt for innovation, the public sector needs to define what they need and under what conditions they can use it, meaning the private sector can go away and deliver against that,” David says. “This is what will ensure successful projects, rather than the private sector coming up with ideas and selling that into the likes of the NHS or the education system.
“Businesses might be creating technology that is ‘the best thing since sliced bread’, but when they try to sell it, they can often realise there is no need for sliced bread in that industry or organisation. So, collaboration across public and private bodies is very important.”
COVID-19 accelerates need for 5G
Robert Franks says COVID-19 has accelerated a number of digital trends by “two to five years”, with remote working, remote learning and remote healthcare being key examples of this. David Hardman adds that the pandemic has “advanced the use and acceptability of digital communication”, meaning that adoption of 5G and IoT technologies will become easier in the long-term.
Peter Mildon echoes this view: “Covid-19 has accelerated the demand for IoT systems, which are able to provide anonymous data on how roads are being used, from measuring social distancing, to mapping how the changing lockdown rules are manifesting to changing transport behavioural patterns.”
The challenge for many organisations, however, is how to access the skills, capabilities and support needed so they can capitalise on the digital transformation trends that have become more important since the onset of the pandemic. To that end, innovation centres like those offered by Bruntwood SciTech, as well as the collaborative cross-sector approaches offered by organisations such as WM5G and the Smart Junctions 5G project, will be of vital importance.
Ultimately, the arrival of 5G promises to significantly alter core systems and processes that govern people’s day-to-day lives. Just as the proliferation of smart devices and cloud-computing have opened the door to all manner of innovation over the past two decades, so too will super-fast mobile connectivity help shape the fabric of governments and businesses in the years to come.