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Building a 5G city: Bristol’s valuable lessons for the UK’s digital future

  • 4 minute read
  • Published by Lucy Woods on 29 Aug 2019
  • Last modified 29 Aug 2019
West of England Combined Authority is taking part in DCMS’s 5G Testbeds and Trials programme, exploring applications for tourism and entertainment. We find out how it is applying its learnings to life in Bristol and Bath

On one weekend in July 2019, more than 250,000 people descended on Bristol to enjoy the annual Harbour Festival. Now in its 48th year, the music and community festival – which started to help save the city’s historic docks from redevelopment – spreads across the city centre and in 2019 included live performances from bands such as New Order and The Specials.


Also new this year was a 5G mobile network, or rather a trial version of one, designed to support a 360° live video viewing experience and help make the event safer and more accessible.

It was set up and run through the University of Bristol, co-ordinating various technology suppliers, and funded with part of a multimillion-pound award from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) 5G Testbeds and Trials programme, made to the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) in 2018.

WECA was created in 2016 to deliver effective joined-up governance across the local authorities of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and Northeast Somerset, and it has already put its 5G cash to good use. Towards the end of 2018, it ran an augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) trial at the historic Roman bath complex in Bath, telling the story of the ancient site using 3D animations produced by Wallace and Gromit creator Aardman Animations.

At the Harbour Festival, WECA wanted to learn lessons it could apply to the local digital economy, says the mayor, Tim Bowles, who has put digital at the forefront of the region’s recently launched local industrial strategy.

Bowles believes digital is the next step in the region’s dynamic economic history. “Going back centuries, we’ve always had a successful economy based on innovation and new ideas; we’ve been building that for generations,” he says.

“The DCMS trials were a perfect vehicle for us to be able to show our USP about how we do things differently. We have the most productive digital economy outside London, employing tens of thousands, so we’re ideally placed. It plays into the DNA of what we’re about as a region.”

Bowles makes a good point – with its prime position near the mouth of the River Severn enabling Bristol to exploit trading routes into and out of the UK, the city’s economic vitality stretches back centuries. Its businessmen and industrialists helped kick-start Britain’s industrial revolution in the 19th century, and in the 20th century helped in the birth of the British aviation industry – it remains home to high-tech engineering firms such as Airbus, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

In the second half of the 20th century, Bristol developed a thriving media culture with the likes of Aardman and the BBC’s world-renowned Natural History Unit. The first two decades of the 21st century saw the emergence of its tech startup and incubator scene, many of which are taking part in the Bristol is Open smart city project.

Multi-faceted network
But back to 5G. What actually happened at the Harbour Festival? Much of the success of the recent trial rests on the shoulders of Dimitra Simeonidou, a professor at the University of Bristol and director of its Smart Internet Lab, who has been working on 5G networks for some time.

In fact, Simeonidou led on the creation of a functioning 5G testbed in Bristol in the spring of 2018, almost 18 months before the first commercial launches, when the university set up a trial showcase in the city’s Millennium Square called Layered Realities.

After this, she extended the testbed to cover a wider area, including the university, the harbourside area, and Temple Meads station. Work is also under way to establish backhaul fibre connections between the two trial networks in Bristol and Bath, creating a twin-city testbed run by Simeonidou’s team, which operates the 5G services and provides access to the core network and cloud, built on Nokia technology.

“The deployment for the Harbour Festival used the University of Bristol network and our own fibre, spanning from my lab where the 5G core and cloud are based, down to Millennium Square where we have a mix of radio access technologies, including Wi-Fi, [4G] LTE-Advanced, and 5G new radio [NR] running in the 3.5GHz spectrum, which is provided by Nokia again,” says Simeonidou.

“Across the harbourside, we also have our own installation at M-Shed, consisting of millimetre-wave technology provided by CCS.

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Source: Computer Weekly

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