The event has been running for three years. It began as a face-to-face event, then last year it took place virtually and this year it was hybrid. But never before has the title been more apt. What was once an aspiration is now a reality and Burnham, more than anyone, captured that. It’s not about ultra-low latency or enhanced mobile broadband, it’s about how 5G helps people.
Burnham said: “When I came in as mayor, four years ago, I set the ambition of making Greater Manchester the UK’s leading digital city region, and I think we’re making really good progress towards it. The Financial Times reported that we are officially the fastest growing digital and tech hub in Europe.”
But he challenged conference members on the effect of such tech growth. “The question I want to pose to you is, what kind of society does all of this create? That, sometimes, is a question that’s missed out of the exciting debates about tech and the way it’s going. We are now duty-bound to pose that question, having lived through the year that we’ve just all lived through, where the world has taken a decisive step in a digital direction.”
Burnham worries that lockdown has made a more divided society and that too much focus is on the exciting and the front-end of digital change, while people without access are left behind. “We had our Disabled People’s Panel conduct a survey, and it made for quite frightening reading, with regard to the number of disabled people in Greater Manchester who simply could not afford to be online on a regular basis,” he said.
He’s looking to better connectivity as one of the ways to address this. “With DCMS, we’ve been working on a full fibre pilot for the last few years, where, of course, we’ve partnered with the private sector, with Virgin Media. This is pushing out 2700 kilometres of new fibre to around 1600 sites across the city region. And they are largely public-sector sites at the moment, so this is where the public-sector side of it comes in. Working with our 10 councils, this is libraries, schools, hospitals, fire stations. So that’s under my remit, as the Mayor of Greater Manchester: traffic signals, community centres. But the idea is that we’re pump-priming the system, and that we’ll then build out from those four public locations, over time.”
He says education on tech is just as important as its uses. He plans to put in place programmes to teach digital skills that will particularly serve older residents, and he sees technology as a great source of jobs. He’s created a very big cyber skills programme. He points out that GCHQ has opened an office in Manchester.
It was good to hear a Labour Party mayor chiming with one of the objectives of the Conservative government. Much of the talk at the conference was about Project Gigabit, the government’s programme to deliver gigabit-like speeds to every home. The government minister, Warman, explained that the majority of this would be delivered by fibre to the premises, but of course it would go hand-in-hand with 5G. In some places 5G would be used to deliver the bandwidth and in others the fibre would facilitate the improved 5G roll-out.
One of the projects Warman said he was particularly keen on was the deployment of 5G smart junctions in Manchester. Matching the theme that it’s not about 5G, but what you can do with it, he reckoned that everyone could relate to a technology that led to us spending less time waiting at traffic lights.
Another theme that recurred throughout the event was the use of 5G in particular industries. Both the Eden Project leaders and the team working with the Green Planet programme, which involves David Attenborough, talked about the ways in which technology could educate people to be more environmentally aware. Two projects looked at 5G in construction and there was a lot of discussion around the enabling technologies of Band 77 and neutral host.