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Innovation Briefing Issue 6 | The Best of 5G in the UK

  • 13 minute read
  • Published by Vicki DeBlasi on 9 Sep 2021
  • Last modified 13 Sep 2021
A look at the best of 5G in the UK by Vicki DeBlasi

The 5G ecosystem is thriving. Organisations big and small, across all four nations, are trialling 5G networks, which will have an impact on residents from Scotland’s Orkney to those in rural Wales. And it’s already fuelling innovation. Supported by the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and through the work of innovative organisations and enterprises, people are benefiting from better connectivity and access to important services, improved transport, rich digital visitor experiences, and so much more. The societal benefits are clear and soon the economic advantages will be too. In addition to empowering people nationwide, 5G should play a central role in rebuilding the UK economy post-pandemic.

In Scotland, 5G RailNext has tested the technical capacities and creative possibilities of 5G networks in a tough environment: the historic Glasgow Subway system. The project, which has now finished, used next-generation technology to supply digital connectivity in a mass transit setting — improving passenger experience while creating new revenue streams for operators, advertisers and media owners through interactive media channels. This global collaboration between the UK and South Korea, which also tested the technical capabilities and creative possibilities of 5G on the busy Seoul metro, clearly shows the potential and versatility of 5G even within challenging environments.

“We’ve been focusing our efforts on testing the suitability of mid-range frequencies for achieving a high bandwidth but also long-distance coverage,” says David Crawford,  Lecturer in Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Strathclyde, which is a partner in the 5G RailNext project. “We built a demonstrator trial system to work out how to deploy the connectivity and where to put the equipment and decided on pointing the aerial down the tunnel between two stations.” The team then used the network to create an interactive experience, whereby customers could use virtual reality to try on shoes from fashion brands. “This is something that was not possible before,” says Crawford. “You need really strong connectivity.”

“The opportunities for rail are very significant,” says Peter Shearman, Head of Innovation at Cisco UKI. “To be able to test and demonstrate evidence for a fast network on Glasgow’s underground is a huge, important feat. Strathclyde Partnership for Transport is a really interesting, passionate and forward-thinking transport operator; sustainability is very important for them and the digital experience of their ridership is, too. It’s been an extremely changeable time since we started doing the project, especially in terms of crowds, but now we have something that can positively contribute to a passenger’s experience as the UK starts to open up.”

In Orkney, the second most poorly connected part of the UK, the 5G New Thinking project is empowering rural communities. The plan is to provide residents with the capacity to build and operate their own commercially viable 5G wireless networks, extending practical guidance and support. Around 66 per cent of the UK landmass is currently dominated by four mobile network operators. Following a conventional business model, they typically use spectrum licences to design, build, own and operate their own networks, which are then marketed directly to customers. But the high capital costs of targeting a small market means MNOs tend to focus investment in areas with high population density and, as a result, people in rural areas face poor connections. A new business model is therefore crucial to boost coverage — a longstanding priority for Ofcom, which recently committed to encouraging investment in broadband and mobile connectivity across the UK.

“It’s really important that the nations have the tools to shape their connected future,” says Shearman. “This has mattered for a long time in the UK, which is why Ofcom looks at regions and nations as an important area of analysis in their own right. Whether we’re talking about fixed networks or cellular, we know that there are certain regions, and even nations, that struggle with investment in connectivity — usually due to not being the so-called optimal demographic or population density. Unfortunately, it’s just more expensive and less profitable.”

Connected communities

Neutral hosting will allow third parties, such as residents and local business owners, to build and own radio infrastructure by working with MNOs to reduce costs and make coverage commercially sustainable. 5G New Thinking will also provide a toolkit to enable rural communities to seize control of their connectivity needs. “The idea is that it will educate and inform. It will probably start quite basic, identifying local needs, but then will also include information about applying for a licence and how to operate as a business,” Crawford says. “It’s not an easy task but there are major advantages to community-led structures and of course, to connectivity.”

Rural industries require empowerment to thrive. They account for some of the UK’s largest food and drink exports — for example, farmed salmon, the suppliers of which rely heavily on technology and are currently being held back due to limited networks. Analysis from 5G RuralFirst suggests that, over a 10-year period, the UK’s rural economy could grow by an additional £17bn if good-quality 5G services were made available.

Orkney spirit

Shearman continues: “Local communities need a way to capitalise network development, and 5G, at least in this regard, is no different. Certainly, if you’re a mobile operator or a traditional subscriber-led business model, 5G is going to have very similar investment characteristics. Since the return is generally in personal data allowances and subscriber volume, it is a critical mass-density question. However, 5G offers a way to disaggregate the investment case from the service delivery. And this is now more possible than it has ever been. 5G New Thinking is genuinely a leading-edge example.”

Orkney is the perfect location for testing. “They have a spirit of independence and a track record of community investment in infrastructure,” says Shearman. “This willingness to encourage self-providing communities is very important for us to try out our ideas for 5G. On the other hand, local residents need to be persuaded of the benefits and become excited about the participation.” So how do you achieve this critical mass adoption? “Outreach is, of course, essential.”

Similarly, 5G Wales Unlocked is demonstrating the commercial viability of 5G deployment in remote areas to drive investment in connectivity across rural Wales. In 2019, 43 per cent of the Welsh landmass, mainly rural areas, was still without 4G coverage. The project is focusing on four use-case themes that emphasise how 5G connectivity can be a powerful force for good in remote and semi-rural areas, opening up new opportunities for businesses and individuals. Although the group’s solutions are technical, they prioritise communities, working with the general public to identify the societal and economic opportunities that will benefit people most and that will overcome any challenges.

“At Raglan Castle we will use 5G to preserve the past and demonstrate the future,” says David Warrender, 5G Programme Director at the Welsh Government. “We will monitor the structural health and environmental conditions of parts of the castle, including tilt, temperature and humidity. This will allow our partner, Cadw, which is the Welsh Government’s historic environment service working for an accessible and well-protected historic environment, to understand how this technology can protect the historic buildings, structures and heritage sites of Wales.”

Additional plans

include delivery of an immersive tourism experience, which will enable visitors to gain a real insight into the past using augmented reality, and monitoring the site for unusual activity to ensure greater security. “This is a real partnership effort between the public and private sectors, as well as people working in academia. Alongside the Welsh Government, Cadw and Monmouthshire County Council, we have Cisco’s camera technology, UtterBerry’s sensors, BT’s network and know-how, Jam Creative’s augmented reality and Cardiff University’s video analytics,” explains Warrender. “It is a real team-Wales effort to make the most of one of our national assets.”

“This is a very different investment case to 5G New Thinking,” says Shearman. “All areas need intervention, but the view from Wales is that there is already a lot of demand here; they believe that if they are provided with connectivity, then the money will follow. The project is therefore highlighting that the country’s digital sectors are growing massively and problems associated with distance are under control. Wales also have sway over their spending in a way that other nations do not, and are very keen to incentivise this.”

England is spoilt for choice. In the south, on the Isle of Wight, the organisers of the Connected Cowes project plan to explore the use of 5G at one of the longest-running regular regattas in the world, Cowes Week. High-definition 360-degree cameras will be fitted to 50 boats in 2021’s regatta. Each camera will beam back real-time, high-definition pictures to the CowesLive TV presentation. This will be shown on big screens around the town and will be available on the internet worldwide. A virtual reality lounge on The Parade in Cowes will additionally enable spectators to don headsets and be transported out to one of the 50 boats to see exactly what’s going on across The Solent. The creation of engaging content should widen the audience’s understanding of sailing and its appeal, with 5G-powered VR additionally being used as a gateway to teaching the sport.

Eden project and Radio Transmitter

Amazon experience

The Eden Project in Cornwall is similarly looking at how 5G and 360-degree video cameras can enhance the visitor experience. Virtual visitors who are unable to visit the Eden site will be able to experience the exhibits and talks from their home, care home, school or other locations via a desktop, mobile or virtual-reality device and be taken on a real-time VR tour. What’s more, the local 5G infrastructure will provide real-time data on core services such as energy and water management and then be fed into the site management systems, such as plant maintenance. Dan James, the Eden Project’s Development Director, says: “We are looking forward to testing just how 5G can help support our educational, arts and community programmes and provide new and exciting reasons for people to keep visiting us in person or virtually.”

Moving north in

England, 5G Ports, a project at the Port of Felixstowe, is using 5G internet-of-things devices and predictive data analytics to reduce unscheduled downtime of cranes, boosting the productivity of the operation of the port’s ship-to-shore gantry cranes. And further north still, 5G is driving operational efficiencies and improving productivity in the North East. Nissan, Sunderland Council, the North East Motor Manufacturers Group and Three are developing a globally unique centre of excellence and operational test facility for connected automated logistics at the Nissan Sunderland site. They will deliver 5G-connected, autonomous 40-tonne trucks to distribute parts and assemblies across the Nissan plant and to link to many local small and medium-sized businesses in their supply chain.

Irish investment

Over the water in Northern Ireland, 5G is accelerating Belfast Harbour’s ambition to become the world’s best regional smart port. BT, in a first for the UK, will build and manage a live 5G private network, which is expected to go live across large parts of the 2,000-acre site this year. The deployment will enable the harbour — which is a significant contributor to the regional economy and an important gateway to trade — to drive operational efficiencies through the optimisation of processes across transport, logistics, the supply chain and shipping. In addition, it will explore how use of 5G and other emerging technologies can enhance safety, security and sustainability across the port and other parts of Belfast city. Plans include the rollout of 5G-enabled sensors to monitor air quality and 5G remote-controlled inspection technology to reduce the need for staff to work at height.

“There’s a huge hunger for 5G investment in Northern Ireland, particularly in the rural areas,” says Kate Clifford, Director at Rural Community Network, which is a regional voluntary organisation established by rural community groups in 1991 to articulate the voice of rural communities on issues relating to poverty, disadvantage and equality. The membership organisation, which is managed by a voluntary board of directors, has partnered with 5G New Thinking to stimulate better access to connectivity in Northern Ireland’s rural areas. They aim to create communities that can thrive economically while also remaining sustainable. “We’ve seen the enormous life-changing potential of 5G in Orkney, one of the most remote areas of the UK, and so, if it can be successfully trialled there, then we can do it here too.

“Broadband is as essential as electricity and water,” she continues. “Yet rural areas in Northern Ireland remain poorly underserved.” The role of Rural Community Network in 5G New Thinking will also facilitate discussions between key stakeholders and local residents about how 5G can address their wants and needs. “The possibilities are really exciting,” says Nigel McKinney, a project worker at Rural Community Network. “The pandemic has highlighted the importance of good connectivity. It’s essential for remote working and decentralising jobs, but then also we’re starting to think about how far we can take it.”

For example, tourism and environmentalism could be revolutionised. The health benefits, in addition, are huge. Poor mental health, isolation, loneliness and difficulty with access to professional treatment are all common problems for those living in remote, rural areas, and new-generation technology has the potential to change this. 5G also offers a great opportunity for Northern Ireland to utilise its new, critical position as a border between the UK and the EU.

“Northern Ireland has a unique strategy and approach to solving infrastructure and connectivity problems,” says Shearman. “The country is very different in terms of activity and the environment, but that’s why the transfer and ability of what we have built in other communities, such as Orkney, is so important. It’s a simple and versatile recipe for this reason. We’re ready and willing for Northern Ireland to be a fast follower in the models that we are currently adopting and refining elsewhere.”

It’s important to emphasise that partnerships within the four nations are essential to the successful rollout of 5G. There are several different elements within both the private and public spheres that need to come together to achieve UK-wide innovation. “And that’s exactly where we’ve been driving our attention,” says Shearman. “We’re keen to solidify these relationships to ensure that everyone is bringing their particular specialism, and utilising this expertise for its full potential, to make sure these new, exciting models work. Collaboration is absolutely crucial.” 

Vicki DeBlasi

Head of Marketing UK5G

Having worked as a marketer in the technology industry for more than 15 years, DeBlasi is fascinated by ways in which complex subjects can be made relevant and engaging for different audiences. She has worked with the 5G Testbeds and Trials programme since it started and is fully versed in the processes, people and projects.

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