“We’re an ambitious and dynamic region,” says Robert Franks, managing director of West Midlands 5G (WM5G), an innovation and digital acceleration company.
Franks believes that Birmingham’s strong manufacturing history was a key factor in the city being selected to home the UK’s first 5G commercial innovation centre.
“We believe that all of the industries we are strong in, such as manufacturing and transport, are being reinvented through a combination of technologies like 5G, sensors, and data,” explains Franks.
WM5G was created from a Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport funding programme to accelerate the adoption of 5G technology in the region.
The West Midlands saw off competition from 17 other city regions and is now working with startups and companies in the surrounding area to help them get the most out of 5G, the latest generation of cellular technology that promises higher speeds and lower latency.
Securing the opportunity was the latest boost for West Midlands, which, according to a government report, is the UK’s fastest-growing tech region.
Speeding up 5G
As managing director, Franks is responsible for deciding which “big strategic opportunities” WM5G should support financially and with expertise.
Franks gives the example of remote monitoring social housing projects in collaboration with NHS organisations responsible for West Birmingham and the Black Country region.
The project installed 5G sensors to help monitor those with chronic health conditions, aiming to reduce the frequency of hospital trips.
“We’ve tried it in 20 apartments – how can we do it in 1,000?” says Franks. “There are 20,000 social housing units in that particular location alone and many more across the UK.”
While it says 5G on the tin, WM5G is focused on how the technology solves problems rather than the technology itself – from health, and transportation to reducing accidents on production lines.
In 2020, WM5G and Innovate UK awarded £2.4m across seven UK-based consortia projects developing 5G use cases, along with a follow-up £1.6m grant.
Among those is a startup providing 5G-enabled robotic customer service at Birmingham New Street train station to assist disabled passengers with the platform ramp.
Franks says that the WM5G is also been working with a startup that’s putting sensors in construction workers’ gear that could provide notifications if they had a fall.
“I would say, for me, those kinds of examples where we’ve avoided a terrible outcome, like somebody being injured at work, or improved somebody’s lives, are always the ones that I think resonate a bit more,” says Franks.
Mobile network operator EE switched the first commercial 5G network on in May 2019. Since then, the rollout has been sluggish and uneven across the country, with rural areas often facing patchy 4G connectivity.
But that hasn’t stopped the government from looking beyond 5G to 6G.
Last month the government began offering investments up to £25m for the research and development of 5G and future 6G network equipment, as part of The Future Open Networks Research Challenge.
“Many of us haven’t got 5G, why are we working on 6G, some people haven’t even got 4G,” says Franks.
In February this year, the government announced plans to cut red tape in a bid to speed up 5G rollouts.
At stake is more than faster mobile data speeds. Businesses are already using private 5G networks to improve efficiencies in smart factories, mining and in ports.
Experts say there are 5G use cases that we don’t yet know about that could boost the UK tech sector and the economy.
“It’s really important that we, as the UK, seize the opportunity to lead in those areas, ” adds Franks.