Having only started the job in April, he’s on something of a learning curve, but he has an impressive pedigree.
For three years he was the Prime Minister’s private secretary, working most recently on Covid but across public services, which included DCMS. Before that Shafi was with McKinsey for nearly four years; before that, at the Treasury, working on public-spending and energy tax policies.
Of course, it’s hard to start a job during a lockdown. The best way to understand the 5G Testbeds and Trials, and the other programmes that DCMS is working on in 5G, is to get out and visit them, but of course that hasn’t been possible. Still, he’s starting to get a feel for the projects. He told us: “What has impressed me a lot is the breadth of the work that we’re doing with so many different partners across the industry and with local authorities, and the excitement, the passion that everybody has, for what we’re looking to achieve together is really exciting.”
Shafi has come in as an outsider rather than with a technology or telecommunications background. That places an interesting perspective on what has surprised him: “I think I haven’t fully understood that we’re only at the very start of what the impacts of 5G will be on the economy. I think if you asked the average customer in the street, they would say, it’s probably just like 4G but a little bit faster. But in its true form, it’s more, much more revolutionary in what it will mean for the economy and how we live our lives. It’s really exciting to see where that will go.”
The pandemic has had an influence on people’s approach to 5G. Ofcom reports that while we may have expected a drop in the use of mobile data as people have been working from home and using wi-fi, that has not happened. Mobile data usage has continued its inexorable increase while use of wi-fi and home broadband has also increased. This puts an emphasis on the need to improve suburban capacity. “Everybody now recognises just how important a good connection to the internet is, wherever you are and whoever you are. The pandemic has shown the importance of government in ensuring that getting that connection to as many people as you possibly can is done as quickly as you possibly can.”
Shafi sees co-operation as the route for doing this: “We’ve got a really positive relationship across government. I think everybody recognises there’s a huge amount to do, especially on newer agendas like supply chain diversification. We can have some impact as ourselves and a whole load more impact when we work with like-minded partners. And the way we do that is through using the brilliant network of diplomats and trade experts we’ve got across the world.”
Two new DCMS-led programmes reflect the goals of improving the options that operators and others have both for siting cells and for the choices of where they buy the equipment from. The Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (see page 7) looks at understanding the options for using things such as streetlamps, while FRANC (see right) is a programme for RAN innovation.
There is also the co-operation system that’s run by UK5G. The pandemic has also impacted this; there have been no events. Before lockdown there were a couple a week, but the Director of Digital Infrastructure sees the value of the organisation in championing and showcasing the power of 5G to all businesses and to consumers.
He describes the UK5G network of networks as “hugely important”. “What we can do to support adoption across a lot of companies that might not necessarily have the understanding themselves of what this technology can deliver will be instrumental to ensuring that the UK makes the most of 5G as quickly as possible.”