Thanks to a UK government grant of up to £50m and matched funding from industry, the West Midlands 5G (WM5G) project is one of the most ambitious undertaken. It has a remit to accelerate 5G network roll-out as well as to test, prove and scale new 5G services to benefit the people, the businesses and the public services of the West Midlands.
In addition to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the backers of the project are the West Midlands Combined Authority, the Local Enterprise Partnerships and some private funding. In some ways it picks up where the testbeds and trials have left off, implementing some of those projects’ findings through application of what has been learnt.
To run the West Midlands 5G project, the organisation has recruited heavy hitters from the mobile industry. Igor Leprince is the chair of the organisation. He spent 25 years in senior roles at Nokia and is an angel investor with a broad view of mobile technology. Robert Franks, the managing director, looked after O2’s start-up and scale-up businesses and accelerator; he has a strong passion for innovative mobile services.
A main aim of the programme is to smooth the way for West Midlands industry to roll out 5G. Leprince explains: “We know that it’s not always easy, fast, or cheap to deploy 5G sites in this country, so really what the remit of this team is, is to make sure that it is for operators, that there is a very strong incentive aided by simplifying the process and cutting red tape.” To do this, West Midlands 5G works with local authorities so that they can develop and deploy 5G network quickly, cheaply and consistently.
Getting infrastructure established is key, so WM5G has built what Franks describes as a foundation layer: “Over the last six months since we began delivery, we have been working in close partnership with local authorities, mobile-phone operators, fibre providers and others, to start to put in place a common framework and approach to make it easy for operators and councils to work together to deploy 5G networks.” It’s starting to pay dividends in Wolverhampton, one of the three main cities in the region, where WM5G is working in partnership with the council and mobile operators to put in place best practice processes to smooth the process for deploying 5G sites. As a result, Wolverhampton was one of the first cities in the UK to launch 5G last year.
Robert Franks is Managing Director of West Midlands 5G, the UK’s first region-wide 5G testbed.
Prior to joining West Midlands 5G, Franks spent 20 years in the mobile industry where he worked for several operators in a combination of senior strategy and general management roles.
He spent the last five years leading O2’s new business portfolio. There he successfully doubled revenue into the hundreds of millions from a portfolio of new businesses including wifi, data analytics, messaging, payments, advertising and fintech. In addition he ran O2’s start-up accelerator.
All seven local authorities in the West Midlands Combined Authority area have appointed a digital champion and digital coordinator, who are single points of contact within those organisations to plan the deployment of 5G networks.
Franks explains: “We are now holding monthly meetings with these experts to work out how we disseminate best practice and how we put in place the simplest possible way of deploying 5G in line with the law and planning regulations.”
As core funding for WM5G comes from the DCMS, it’s appropriate that culture and sport will get the 5G treatment. Coventry will be the UK City of Culture next year, and will host the Commonwealth Games in 2022, so WM5G is working with the appointed digital facilitators and the mobile operators to enable the transformation of these two events to new levels of experience through use of 5G. The partners also aim to use these events to experiment with use cases and the power of 5G.
WM5G has built a Connected Map of the region that has captured most of the mobile-phone network data. This important tool shows where all the mobile-phone masts are, the fibre provision, and 300,000 public assets such as council buildings, lampposts and similarly useful items. It enables the planners of 5G implementations to see and start to resolve issues around coverage gaps, hotspots and not-spots.
WM5G isn’t looking to build a neutral host or have its own spectrum, but to create the environment in which a mobile operator can provide high-quality 5G coverage with the minimum number of barriers to rolling out. There is opportunity for large businesses to implement their own private networks, but they don’t tend to need the same level of support as the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) on which WM5G’s effort is focused.
The projects span three areas: mobility, manufacturing and wellness. To back these up there is a 5G application accelerator.
Collaboration is the key theme between all the partners to improve mobility around the area. Part of the plan is to deploy a team that will consider a particular stretch of road in a busy urban area and work with various players including local authorities to design and improve the model for rolling out the required 5G infrastructure there. Then, working with DCMS, the same plan can be applied across the region and beyond. That project will lead to a network of 5G sensors at up to 1,000 road junctions across the West Midlands. The sensors will use real-time HD video cameras, radar, and sensors such as pollution detectors. These will use the 5G network to transmit data in real time back to a platform and to traffic-management control centres. Given that more than half the sets of traffic lights in the West Midlands aren’t currently connected to anything, there’s a huge opportunity in terms of reduced road congestion and pollution. Use of 5G will provide the bandwidth and low latency to monitor the traffic in real time and make real differences.
Mobility is a major part of the WM5G project. It will grow to encompass all kinds
of mobility, but is starting with automotive and road transport because this accounts for the largest number of passenger journeys and of miles travelled in the region. It will then extend into other modes of transport such as rail.
The Chair of the WM5G board Igor Leprince has been in the telecoms industry for 25 years. He spent just under half of that time at Nokia, where he was president of the global services business, in charge of a six billion euro revenue and 25,000 employees. Leprince has lived in 10 countries and has run and launched networks in France, Ireland, Switzerland and Bolivia, among others. Alongside his role at WM5G, Leprince is chairman of systems integrator Advance Wireless Technology Group. As an angel investor, he has helped some innovative start-ups and is a senior advisor for Bain & Company.
To develop these propositions, WM5G is running a series of competitions, working in partnership with the UK’s innovation agency Innovate UK, to find exciting private-sector organisations that can help to develop original 5G travel services. These could be, for example, systems to help people to find parking spaces, or ways to make it easier for people to choose between using public transport and private cars. Through the competitions, WM5G aims to set up a series of small, medium and large use cases that show the new application opportunities that are possible around road and rail transport.
The West Midlands is the hub for UK motor manufacture, and the new cars and vans that roll off the production lines are very important to the region and to the rest of the UK. However, arrival of new vehicles on the roads needs management, and West Midlands 5G wants to improve the ways that people get around, reduce congestion and pollution, and deliver system-wide benefits, as well as to consider how 5G can help to integrate exciting new types of vehicle such as connected autonomous vehicles. To achieve these aims, WM5G is working with Transport for West Midlands, the second-biggest transport authority in the UK after Transport for London.
Manufacturing is a strength of the West Midlands, building on the heritage of the Industrial Revolution; 10 per cent of the gross added value in the region comes from manufacturing, which is substantially higher than the UK average.
The WM5G consortium appreciates that 90 per cent of the value from manufacturing comes from small and medium-sized businesses. The Worcestershire 5G trial has demonstrated the use cases of predictive and remote maintenance and aims to extend them, with a focus on both large manufacturers and on SMEs. The consortium recognises that smaller companies may not have the resources to explore new technologies such as the Internet of Things and 5G.
WM5G is building on the Worcestershire 5G testbed study. The team is familiar with the work undertaken in that testbed, such as 5G factory trials by appliance maker Bosch and machine tool builder Yamazaki Mazak. They will initially look at how to apply what has been learned to West Midlands businesses and the fresh information that can be gleaned from the new use cases.
The 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation (ACIA) international consortium will host its 2020 workshop at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. WM5G will invite several hundred manufacturing organisations from across the region to this important part of its 5G programme to hear about 5G and to participate in the discussion. The aim is to recruit an extensive list of organisations from numerous manufacturing sectors that are keen to be part of the 5G experimentation process. There is also a need to pull together a consortium of partners with different capabilities, such as network expertise and equipment provision, and platform services. Data analysis and management are also important areas. WM5G is also seeking application providers, in particular a delivery partner that can pull it all together and ensure that the trial progresses according to plan.
Helping to look after the people of the West Midlands is a major objective of WM5G. The team has started working with University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, one of the biggest National Health Service trusts in the UK, which deals with about two million patient visits a year. At the consortium launch, WM5G ran a medical use-case with BT. It showed the potential of the technology for diagnosis in the community, in care homes and in ambulances. Such use of 5G can ensure that patients are transferred to the appropriate specialist or that they avoid a hospital visit. Ultrasounds are used in about 10 million patient examinations each year, but paramedics cannot currently conduct them as they are not trained in the technology. Empowerment of paramedics at the frontline enables diagnosis of problems during transit to the hospital so that the right clinical support can be ready when the patient arrives. Leprince explains: “It’s one of the many, many examples of remote diagnosis and connected health overall, and obviously one you cannot do without 5G.”
5G applications accelerator
WM5G has ambitious plans for an advanced 5G accelerator, a workspace for companies that want to develop new and innovative 5G products. The accelerator will be housed in a building that provides a suitable environment, and will include a cutting-edge private 5G network. The idea is that the network will extend to cover a larger footprint than just the building itself. It’s an ambitious project, scheduled to launch in March. WM5G aims to work with at least 500 businesses and public-sector organisations in the workspace, which will act as a commercial accelerator or incubator of exciting innovations. WM5G wants start-up and scale-up businesses and entrepreneurs to be based there, and for it to be a hub that is visited regularly by investors and advisers. Franks and Leprince are seeking heavily commercial vibe rather than a university-like R&D lab.
“We want this to be something that’s real world, real entrepreneurs, real investment, in 5G-powered innovations in our region,” explains Franks.
WM5G is a fitting follow-up to the 5G trials and testbeds. It has a grittier feel than that of the London-based tech community known as silicon roundabout. The West Midlands work is much more orientated towards interfacing the digital to the real world rather than living in an entirely digital environment. And it’s not like the tech world at Cambridge, where there is pioneering research that is a distance from commercialisation. The West Midlands is a place to build things that benefit the region and the UK, to develop the products and skills that can then be used to drive exports.
As the phase one trials draw to a close, the WM5G project is picking up the baton and building on what has been learned from many of them. It’s turning research into development and commercialising the propositions in a way that delivers revenue and jobs to the manufacturing heart of the UK. It’s a significant task but the people behind it inspire confidence.
This article was first published by CWJ Press as part of a series of UK5G Magazine specials comissioned by DCMS. You can access the digital version here.
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