The advent of 5G is exciting and transformative, not so much for speedier connectivity as for its diverse applications across the economy, especially in manufacturing, transport, healthcare and the Internet of Things.

“[It is said] that 80% of future revenue and data streams from 5G will come from outside the current usage of mobile networks,” says Dave Maclean, founder and CEO of Packt, a tech company that is facilitating 5G testbedding in the UK’s West Midlands region.

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Broadband first

The first step in 5G’s rollout will be mobile broadband. In the UK, operators such as Vodafone, BT, EE, Three and O2 are aiming to launch 5G services by the third quarter of 2019, targeting major cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, where there is a high density of users and a capacity crunch on 4G.

With people using ever increasing amounts data, operators are keen to expand their capacity. Mobile data traffic grew seventeenfold between 2012 and 2017, according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast.

“All operators are waiting for the mobile terminals to become available. Many countries in Europe are putting [in] masts ready for the terminals to come and deploy 5G. The UK has more masts deployed than any individual country in Europe,” says professor Rahim Tafazolli, director of the 5G innovation centre at the University of Surrey.

This year, broadband deployment will begin in the US, China, Japan, South Korea, the UK, parts of Europe, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, adds Mr Tafazolli. As with 4G, it will then take five to eight years to cover 98% to 99% of the population in these leading countries.

National leaders

Although being able to stream Netflix more quickly is useful, the real advantage of 5G is in the research and development of 5G technologies, especially for smart city applications. The world’s leaders in 5G R&D are China, Japan, South Korea, the UK and the EU, in terms of their concerted and coordinated investment from the public and private domains, says Mr Tafazolli.

“The UK government was the first in the world to invest in 5G innovation. China also has a national programme [and] very powerful manufacturers such as Huawei, and big operators like China Mobile. [In] Japan, Docomo [works alongside] the Japanese government. The same thing applies with Samsung in South Korea. The [EU’s] Horizon 2020 is funding a lot of trials and testbeds in different countries, [especially Germany and Italy],” he adds.

Meanwhile, the US was slow in creating a national programme that mobilised different stakeholders – telecommunications operators, healthcare, manufacturing, etc – into an ecosystem of testbeds that is more nationwide, according to Mr Tafazolli. But the US also boasts global industry giants such as Qualcomm, Verizon and IBM, which have been very active in 5G innovation.

Unlike the US, the UK government began its 5G development programme very early, establishing the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey in 2012. Since then, the centre has undertaken diverse and cutting-edge research in 5G tech, from autonomous vehicles driving at 260 kilometres per hour, to smart factories development and remote farming

As a result, the 5G Innovation Centre and the city of Guildford have attracted investments through partnerships with numerous companies, such as Huawei. 

The West Midlands’ way

The UK government has also put significant funding into 5G testbeds and trials, as it estimates that the economic impact of 5G implementation in the UK will be about £112bn ($145.3bn) in 2020, rising to £198bn in 2030 – 5.7% of the UK’s GDP – if the country manages to lead 5G technology development.

“Cities understand the importance of first-mover advantage [in] launching 5G services. Birmingham, one of the three West Midlands [locations] elected to be the UK’s first large-scale 5G testbed, is well poised to seize the opportunity in becoming one of the first places to witness the fruits of 5G commercialisation and the transformations in people’s lives and work,” says Dr Sultan Salem, an economist at the University of Birmingham.

The West Midlands was chosen in mid-2018 as the UK’s primary testbed for the acceleration of 5G development, beating 18 other regions in the bid. The West Midlands will explore 5G rollout within two of its economic strengths: health and life sciences, and mobility.

“With the government acting as seed investor we are creating a 5G ecosystem of what the world might look like in 2025, a sandbox environment where you can innovate, a space where public and private actors can meet. It is a unique proposition to global innovators: ‘Come to the West Midlands, where you can build your products and services of the future, and then monetise them globally’,” says Packt’s Mr Maclean. “We’re already starting conversations with global medical devices makers and global automakers. So there’s a big foreign investment opportunity.”

Health and mobility

Smart cities using 5G will require extensive digital infrastructure and fibre support, much more so than is currently in place. In an urban area, this will entail a high degree of collaboration between the public sector for use of public sector assets.

In Birmingham, the first 5G site will centre around the university hospital and the inner city’s high-demand areas for healthcare, covering 100,000 to 200,000people.

“[We’re] aiming to provide digitally enabled services around predictive analytics; connected devices for real-time diagnostics; treatment for data-driven personalised medicine; and the projection of healthcare out of the institutional context [to the] remote point of use. The huge data exhaust we all leave will allow deep-learning algorithms to predict [health risks or diseases]. The university is the data partner, with its millions of patients,” says Mr Maclean.

The second proposition is in connected vehicles and cities. Coventry and the West Midlands region already make up the UK’s leading testbed for connected and autonomous vehicle research. “Through a collective investment of about £400m, [Coventry is] going to build a 5G-enabled city and transport infrastructure, creating an environment with data sharing between vehicles, citizens, public transport and the city environment itself. Automakers and insurance companies can come, innovate and test what the future might look like with a real-time handshake between all the moving parts in the transport ecosystem,” says Mr Maclean.

The West Midlands 5G testbed will finish towards the end of 2021. It remains to be seen whether this innovation drive will seed clusters that long outlive the trial project.