5G industry news Acceleration & Innovation

Innovation Briefing Issue 6 | Here in Blighty...

  • 3 minute read
  • Published by Crispin Moller on 24 Aug 2021
  • Last modified 2 Sep 2021
By Simon Rockman

Here in Blighty, we have a bit of a reputation for inventing stuff; difficult technology.

From graphene to liquid-crystal displays to touch screens, the invention has been done here. Only the US has more Nobel prize winners than the UK. Traditionally, though, the technology is commercialised abroad, from China to California; the k’ching factor never happens here. Not so with 5G.

In part of the 5G forest we had the “testbeds” part of the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme. Government funding paid for fundamental research at the universities of Bristol and Surrey and at King’s College London. We saw a fantastic understanding of how to make 5G tick, in particular in work on how to integrate software components from multiple vendors so that they all played nicely together. Not just in open systems, but looking at how different companies have interpreted the 3GPP standards, which underpin telecoms the world over. That work went on to feed the “trials” bit: the test track at Millbrook, rural coverage on Orkney and the Worcester Bosch factory, among others.

Normally this is where it would all start to go wrong. One would expect programmes to come to an end, a few people in the know to read some of the results and nothing much to change. The seeds planted by those taking part in the early projects would fail to take root and the work would not be exploited. Meanwhile, we’d see lessons learned seized upon elsewhere.

But a confluence of events led to a different turn of events. One was Ofcom liberalising radio spectrum. The local and shared access licence schemes are still taking baby steps and there is a lot to be tidied up, but they have given confidence to small and private networks. Then the big mobile network operators – EE, Vodafone, O2 and to a lesser extent Three –  launched 5G. We became the first country in Europe to have 5G on all networks.

So, with 5G flourishing, those seeds that had been sown by the early projects started to look very attractive to the major operators. None of the operators took part in the first round of 5G Testbeds and Trials, yet all of them are working with the latest 5G Create round. The tiny teams are building into proper companies and those proper companies are building into an ecosystem. The MNOs that previously thought it too hard or risky to do anything other than buy a complete network from one vendor have started to embrace the work started in the testbeds. Vodafone has been particularly keen; it has been working with King’s since the college made the first 5G call, and now cooperates with Mavenir on Open RAN. Those seedlings are starting to take root in the most fertile ground: the UK 5G networks.

The rate of 5G deployment in the UK has slowed, particularly in the extension from the cities to the suburbs. This is not good, as people split work between home and the office. Maybe mixing in smaller players is a distraction from high-speed roll-out, but the place we find ourselves in now, with a domestic ecosystem that can go from research to development to deployment, has put us in a strong position.