Back in March at the UK’s 5G Showcase event, Keith Bullock, Programme Director for the 5G Testbeds & Trials Programme, reflected on some of his key lessons learned across the programme. What stuck with me was his comment that the DCMS programme team were not expected to know all the answers but to work with everyone across all sectors and with every type of organisation in the belief that “somewhere out there, there will be an answer”, and to look really broadly for where that answer might be.
For sure the programme can be described in many ways. For me it has been about working with a set of brilliant, curious, creative and industrious people to ask the questions and work together to find answers and solutions, to really move forward our understanding and develop the business cases for widespread adoption of 5G across many different sectors.
In this spirit of reflection, and for the sake of brevity, I have picked just five themes from across this DCMS-funded programme for us to look back on and to draw out some of the key lessons learned. Looking back allows us to look forward afresh. Let us keep moving forward together.
Theme - People and skills
It was reputedly Helen Keller who said: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” The importance of assembling a well-functioning team that reflects a diversity of skills and perspectives is well recognised. Building on this approach, there were important lessons learned across the programme regarding the sheer diversity of skill sets needed, and how to blend these together to deliver a successful project outcome.
Look across any 5G Testbeds and Trials project and you will have found a diversity of skills and backgrounds – public and private sector, industry and academia, entrepreneurs and engineers, marketeers and project managers, sector specialists, and pragmatic generalists. It is unlikely that these groups of people would have naturally worked together without the stimulus of the DCMS competition. Creating a corpus of people and organisations who have worked together on complex stuff can only be good for the country.
Not surprisingly, it was important to have some people on your team who are experts in 5G and the telecoms world. These people, however, are unlikely to be experts in, for example, factory automation, the social care sector, production of an immersive visitor experience, safety considerations of operating an autonomous vehicle, or zapping invasive weeds in a field of wheat. Each sector and specialism has its own vocabulary, competencies, performance parameters – and, to be frank, quirks.
A key learning, therefore, has been the need both to assemble a diverse team and then to take the time to help people understand the problem space from each other’s perspective, valuing the experience and contribution each person and specialism brings. A good example of this has been the “barrier busting” work bringing local councils and network service providers together, finding new ways to cooperate on identifying suitable physical assets that can host small cells to provide 5G coverage.
Another important learning distilled from the 5G Skills collaboration group has been the importance of having people on your project team who can bridge across disciplines and sectors, both to act as “translators” and to provide the human “glue” to give the clarity and focus needed to keep everyone moving in the same direction. People with various specialisms will have a critical role at different points in a delivery project – but don’t forget that someone needs to retain the big picture, keep everyone on track and ensure a shared understanding.
Willingness to embrace other organisations, the humility to learn and a can-do approach are three attitudinal traits for success identified by Bullock as part of his reflections on the programme back in March. Although probably none of the projects ran precisely to plan, through resilience, flexibility and an ability to roll with the punches, the vast majority have delivered tangible and beneficial outcomes.
Skills development should be viewed in the context of 5G as a disruptive technology, creating new demand for a wide range of skilled jobs. As well as growing the UK’s talent pool of telecoms engineers and technicians, new use cases enabled by 5G also drive demand for skills in, for example, creative media, service design, user experience, product design, software and electronics development, and programme and project management.
Theme Commercial sustainability – stackable use cases
The 5G Testbeds & Trials programme has demonstrated a dazzling array of use cases across multiple vertical sectors, which is very impressive and confirms the premise that 5G acts as an enabling technology that can drive wide-scale innovation, productivity and value creation across the nation.
The key challenge now is to translate compelling end-user benefits into sustainable business models to support all parties in the value chain and thus drive the widespread adoption of these and other use cases.
There is a lot of interest and focus coming out of the programme on “stackable use cases” – consolidating or stacking use cases together to strengthen the return on investment (ROI) business case, rather than focusing on a single and perhaps elusive “killer app”. Consolidating use cases could lead to less fragmentation of requirements, higher equipment volumes with volume discounted pricing, and a more stable and mature market emerging for all players.
There are also, however, significant challenges in a service provider organisation providing this consolidation or “stacking”. Firstly, it forces organisations to collaborate across lines and jurisdictions that have not traditionally worked together. In many cases this can include navigating public sector processes or collaboration with private sector competitors. Secondly, stackable use cases require long-term thinking and increased upfront investment for a longer-term pay-off.
The high prices of much 5G equipment, combined with a market that is firmly occupied by early adopters, means the risk of taking this approach is simply too high currently for many organisations. We also observed much discussion around the concept of stackable use cases but few tangible examples of where or how this can be done in practice. We need to be careful this doesn’t become the latest 5G hype.
Engagement with Mobile Network Operators (MNO) on private network provision has been welcomed across the programme. However, from a commercialisation perspective there are significant challenges in working with MNOs, owing to the cost models MNOs operate within and their need to recoup investment costs, limiting their interest in supporting vertical markets that are perceived as niche.
On the public sector side, the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (DCIA) programme has emerged as a key pillar in supporting the rollout of 5G capability. In essence DCIA supports the identification, and guidelines for use, of a range of existing infrastructure assets, such as lamp posts and bus shelters, which have the potential to be utilised for small-cell 5G base station deployments. This approach is unlocking “single source of truth” information that can particularly support smaller private operators to establish coverage in a cost and time-efficient manner.
Theme - Shared access spectrum
Many of the 5GTT projects obtained a Shared Access licence from Ofcom to support the trialling of their use cases, with 11 of these projects collaborating with DCMS to draw out key lessons learned in a report that has recently been published by UK5G.
The Shared Access Licence application process itself is straightforward. Critically, though, appropriate technical expertise is required throughout in the use of shared spectrum, planning of the network and the application process itself. Information provided to Ofcom needs to be clear, detailed and precise. As a part of the application process a pre-assessment of existing spectrum within the area may be necessary and network planning tools utilised to select and apply for the appropriate licence(s).
A key project learning is that the application process becomes significantly more complex and time consuming if the original requested spectrum was not approved by Ofcom. For the future, additional tooling to support the application pre-assessment and submission process emerged as a strong requirement, along with the request for Ofcom to automate both the initial application process and to develop a dynamic system to support flexible changes to spectrum licences.
Outdoor use was particularly complex to coordinate, with many subtle constraints and variables seen to stall applications or require significant replanning. The 5G Testbed & Trials projects struggled to get their required spectrum provision (frequency, power and bandwidth) on the first application attempt, with re-work consuming time and resources.
The available power options available for the Shared Access Licence models haven’t fully supported practical and cost-effective outdoor use over a wider area. This was a major concern for the projects as this directly affected the commercial viability of the deployments.
Overall, it was agreed that the default approaches to assessment that Ofcom is taking, with segmenting geography into urban or rural, applying the same maximum power to sites regardless of the topography and assuming omni-directional antennas, didn’t marry up with the real-world deployment scenarios that the 5G Testbeds & Trials projects were exploring.
To conclude, the offering of the Shared Access Licence model has been a catalyst for the market, creating opportunities for innovation in network deployment and usage as well as providing opportunity for the innovative, mostly SME vendors which aim to serve the market so created. It is the principal enabler for telecoms supplier diversification.
Theme - Equipment and supply chain
The 5G Testbeds & Trials Programme set out to explore a very wide range of use cases across a diverse set of sectors. What has been learned about the equipment required to deliver these use cases, the supply chains needed, and how to manage procurement?
The first learning is perhaps not at all surprising, but its implications are profound for the development of vertical-sector use cases. It is that the supply chain is built around the premise of high-volume supply, and the economies of scale that come with that in terms of pricing. Let’s start with smartphones. With a supply chain set up and focused on shipping high volumes of devices to a relatively small number of mobile network operators, it is not totally surprising that asking for 10, 100 or 1,000 devices for your operation will not be a top priority for your suppliers.
It may be slightly easier if you are after a standard off-the-shelf product, but asking for something currently still very forward-looking – for example, standalone operation on n77 spectrum, supporting voice inter-working with other network operators – is extremely challenging. Although the devices may have been designed from early on to support such capabilities, the real question is whether that particular combination of features has been tested and validated, and shown to inter-operate correctly with existing networks. It’s likely not.
The same principle applies to non-consumer equipment such as routers, modems and CPE (consumer premises equipment). Yes, the product may exist – the specification sheet supports your requirements – but has it been tested and will it work on your own network? And that’s before you have the awkward conversation about wanting to add some custom features!
Projects have mitigated these challenges in a number of ways. For sure, building up a good working relationship with the supply base is near the top of the list, and sharing information on supplier capability across the programme was extremely valuable here. Also, through exploring a range of options beyond the normal brand players and finding suppliers who are hungrier to build a market presence with greater flexibility when volumes are low has been invaluable.
Your requirements may be exotic. The humidity inside the Eden Project may be higher than normal specification tolerances. The robustness against, for example, vibration or dust ingress may be so much higher if the device needs to be strapped to an agricultural vehicle delivering a use case to improve crop yields. In these cases you either need to work hand-in-glove with suppliers to create a product variant and help them build the business case for future returns, or you may need to start with a module design and “roll your own” solution that meets your own interfacing or environmental performance standards.
Looking forward, there is a need for co-ordination with the supply chain to support their business case investment into vertical sectors, to allow volumes to build and device costs to start to come down. Consolidating requirements wherever this can be done will also help the case for volume and lower price points. Ensuring that everyone can win and make business is a critical aspect here.
Theme - 5G as an enabler
Outside consumer applications, 5G is best viewed as an enabling technology – not by itself a solution but an important building block that enables new or enhanced use cases not previously possible. There are two immediate implications of this. The first is that solutions have to be constructed – putting together various building blocks – to realise benefit; there are no easy off-the-shelf solutions. The second implication is that 5G can act as a catalyst that drives innovation as technologies, new and established, are brought together in different ways to create new stakeholder value.
Let’s take two examples to illustrate the point. For the 5G Factory of the Future project, 5G provides low-latency, high-bandwidth data communications with mobility. Excellent as this is, it is only part of a larger innovation challenge. For example, where to place the cloud infrastructure in the solution architecture, and what aspects should be “near the edge” of the network, versus more central.
The opportunity is to connect a range of manufacturing equipment into the digital infrastructure to achieve greater levels of automation and efficiency. But there are no off-the-shelf solutions for integrating such automation equipment, so this becomes a new challenge and learning opportunity. 5G Factory of the Future went on to build its own 5G devices to connect up its manufacturing equipment. Yes, there have been challenges and pain, but out of this new skills and capabilities have been developed in, for example, cloud, IT, devices and system integration, accelerating the pace of innovation and digitalisation.
Another illustrative example is the 5G Smart Junctions project, which is providing smart decision making in sequencing of traffic lights to manage traffic flow at busy junctions. This project has needed to bring together capabilities in sensing, in cloud platforms, in artificial intelligence and in cyber security together with 5G capabilities to build a compelling solution.
The more obvious 5G value add is around low-latency, high-capacity connectivity, the less obvious is about software-isation of the network, providing flexibility, agility and efficiency both in developing solutions and in deploying and operating them. 5G has been a catalyst for this use case – the ability to move data around rapidly with very low latency – and yet so much else has been gained in learning how to develop and deploy advanced software-centric networks, and building up the UK’s expertise and skill base in advanced technologies.
This learning and building of capability is still a work in progress, and perhaps another lesson learned is not to be too eager to declare the job done and rush too quickly onto the next shiny opportunity, when there is much hard graft still needed to bring the full benefits of the UK’s investment in adoption of 5G to bear in terms of economic growth and societal benefit.
By Peter Whale
UK5G Senior Advisor
Peter has a background in technology together with skills in connecting organisations and people to support the growth. With a long track record of conceiving, developing and marketing successful technology, globally deployed at scale, he is the founder of Vision Formers, the specialist consultancy that helps tech businesses get product to market and turn ideas into reality. Products Peter has devloped in digital, cloud, AI, consumer electronics and telecommunications are used by countless millions of people on a daily basis globally, badged by the world’s leading digital and technology brands.