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The importance of 5G to the Northern economy

  • 5 minute read
  • Published by Richard Foggie on 4 May 2018
  • Last modified 4 May 2018

Superficially 5G takes connectivity to the next level. Fundamentally what that enables will be key to our future prosperity. Here, Adam Beaumont, founder and CEO of aql and UK5G Advisory Board member, discusses the importance of 5G to the Northern economy.

Stephen Craven [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

"I see 5G as an umbrella of technologies which allow us to make the most of mobile connectivity, for people, for things and for transport.

It’s not just about faster mobile broadband – though 5G will bring a step-change in connectivity speeds – it’s an opportunity to better engineer our “mobile cloud” to create lower latency networks capable of coordinating citywide autonomy and efficiency.

The Northern Powerhouse is one of the UK’s most rapidly growing economies. However, building the next generation of businesses to continue driving this growth will require the right infrastructure. Not all of this can be fibre, partly because of the lead times in building fixed infrastructure, but also because these businesses are not tethered – they are agile, mobile and collaborative. The next generation of sensors which allow us to monitor and improve our environment are low-power and low-cost. All of this opportunity is afforded under the aspirations of tomorrow’s 5G networks.

This next generation of mobile connectivity will impact virtually every sector of the economy, with some of the most interesting opportunities coming in transport, including driverless cars; vastly-improved rail telemetry and video-capable connectivity; and wearable 5G child safety devices that allow self-driving infrastructure to be aware of hidden pedestrians. Building 5G capability along the TransPennine rail route, as announced in the Government’s most recent budget, will help develop collaboration and strengthen communications between York, Leeds and Manchester.

Some of these technologies will require large quantities of data. A driverless car, for instance, will use about four terabytes of data a day, and require split second decision-making to ensure driver and pedestrian safety. As we move to networks that need to carry more traffic, we therefore need to make sure that the routing of that data is more efficient. We don’t want to be sending traffic up and down the country – it needs to be delivered as locally as possible, which requires a centralised internet infrastructure in a city. We built that fundamental “plumbing” 10 years ago in Leeds, which is why the city has played such a big role in growing the North’s digital reputation and why it has a head start in trialling 5G systems.

aql has always been a communications and technology company that builds platforms for innovation, and we’ve enabled and built communications products that have supported the growth of some of the largest global scales-ups. What we see now is an opportunity to build the enabling infrastructure to enable the next wave of innovation in autonomous vehicles and systems. Everybody is excited about all of the tech applications, but we’re excited about building the silent tech behind the scenes to make this happen.

We’re currently building out further support for 5G in Leeds, but we aren’t stopping there. We’re going to work with other cities across the Northern Powerhouse to empower them to go on their own digital journeys.

Sustained investment in the North and its digital infrastructure has already delivered outsized returns, boosting productivity and creativity; birthing and attracting digital businesses and high-quality jobs; and generating opportunity for everyone. 5G will unlock the next wave of innovation and entrepreneurship in the region – taking all that success and supercharging it. It can make the North the most dynamic growth engine in the UK economy. It can unleash the North’s full potential.

However, the devil is in the detail. One of the facts we must face up to is that across the Northern Powerhouse, different cities are at different stages on their digital maturity journey and have differing levels of underlying infrastructure to support their 5G aspirations.

For example, to build out a new 5G network which is fit for purpose to connect the next generation of city mobility, we have to look at what a city has already got in its arsenal of capabilities.

Smaller cities and towns tend to have a relatively underdeveloped competitive landscape, creating quasi-monopolies and lack of choice for the consumer/business. Also, connectivity tends to be backhauled to other cities or regions. This lack of network choice results in lesser resilience and few routes in and out, making those areas less attractive to data-hungry applications or businesses reliant upon cloud services.

For the less digitally-evolved cities, 5G will be about faster internet and edge connectivity for non-real-time services such as better access to content. We need to start to invest in neutral host infrastructure in these cities and create the business cases to drive a diverse marketplace. This sets the foundations for a resilient city and must be done before investing in edge applications or choosing applications which don’t pre-require low-latency intra-city plumbing to be in place, such as remote patient care applications.

For those cities which already have this infrastructure, we can build a smart city supported by the high-speed decision-making which can support smart transport and logistics.

To harmonise aspirations across the North, it’s important we understand all of our Northern cities are on the same journey, but at different stages and therefore there is a need to invest differently in each city to further advance its digital capability. To do this requires collaboration and communication between the private and public sector to jointly address funding and regulatory opportunities. I say opportunities, rather than challenges, because I strongly believe that the regulator recognises that we have just that – an opportunity to drive change.

Telecoms, by history, was about connecting people. It’s now about connecting things, to make life better for people. This connectivity should be a reliable commodity layer upon which the smart software operators of the future can innovate."

You can follow Adam at @adam_beau