5G: What Does The Future Hold?

Why the next generation of mobile connectivity will provide a host of innovation opportunities

Discussions around 5G – overshadowed by the coronavirus over the past few months – are beginning to resurface again, and not without controversy… However, beyond concerns over Huawei’s involvement in this critical piece of UK infrastructure, it’s time for another look at 5G technology and its implications for the business world.

Faster, bigger, better

Without going into too much technical detail, 5G mobile networks are faster, have greater capacity and reduced latency than their 4G counterparts. When it is successfully unrolled, 5G technology will unleash the true potential of the Internet of Things, with billions of digital devices able to send and receive much more data at much higher speeds.

This will translate into a whole new set of services delivered through wireless internet connectivity. From remote surgery, autonomous vehicles, and smart energy grids, 5G has applications across heavy industry, retail, agriculture, healthcare, transportation and more. Above all, it will increase the opportunity for forward-thinking businesses to innovate.

One person well placed to comment on 5G’s potential is David Hardman, MD at Bruntwood SciTech – Birmingham, which plays host to the UK’s first 5G commercial application accelerator 5PRING. Disruption North spoke to him to find out more.

5G rollout

5G has been available in the UK – in select areas, on select mobile network providers – since May 2019. The implementation of 5G has been complicated by a few factors, including covid-19, a recent government U-turn on the security risk posed by Huawei, and the inherent infrastructure needed by the technology (it uses a higher frequency spectrum compared to 4G and 3G, does not travel as far, and therefore requires ‘small cells’ – short range transmission systems that extend signal range).

According to David Hardman, until 5G networks cover a much greater area of the UK, major initiatives around the technology are likely to focus more on what is possible in the future, rather than necessarily providing solutions today.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” he says. “New, innovative products and services need to be developed in parallel with infrastructure roll-out in order to take full commercial advantage.  Businesses coming through the 5G incubator, 5PRING, in the early days are likely to be larger established businesses that can plug in to what 5G currently offers. Full implementation will enable real commercial returns for these organisations, with the next wave of innovation then coming from new businesses that establish themselves when the 5G service is fully up and running.”

“Although Huawei concerns and covid-19 have impacted progress, the pandemic has also woken people up to what true digital communication is about. Can you imagine what the working world would have looked like if the virus had struck 15 years ago, when none of the remote working technology was readily available? If we look forward another 10 years, the development of 5G will bring a further evolutionary step-jump in what digital has to offer in all aspects of our lives.”

West Midlands calling

The 5PRING Applications Accelerator is the result of a £50m bid to develop 5G infrastructure across the cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. This will focus on the specific strengths of locations in the West Midlands region, from Birmingham’s hospitals, Wolverhampton’s manufacturing industry, and the transport sector in Coventry.

“As the Accelerator opens on our Innovation Birmingham Campus, current businesses in the region will be looking to make use of this technology,” Hardman says. “I am keen to explore with them how 5G can sit alongside their wider innovation activities.”

“The potential is there: 5G corresponds really well to the strengths of the region in mobility, digital health and manufacturing. Advances in data transfer capacities and speed open up new ways of delivering technologies that are just around the corner…”

All for one

Another key aspect of 5G – as with all technological developments – should be digital inclusion.

“As the Accelerator develops its services the 5G footprint will extend out from our building,” says Hardman. “This provides the means to explore ways of overcoming digital poverty in areas close to our campus.” 

“There is a significant minority of the population that cannot access digital services. In recent weeks this has been thrown into sharp focus: just think of those schoolchildren attempting to learn at home without connectivity or equipment. As the world becomes ever more dependent on digital services, the digital divide becomes more damaging to society.” 

“Addressing digital inclusion is thus extremely important, and we see that as an integral part of the work we do as we look to promote thriving innovation districts that are relevant to our cities’ communities.”

Years, not months

The next generation of wireless connectivity clearly offers unprecedented opportunity to businesses across the board. That said, significant progress relies on infrastructure developments, and the opening up of industry to 5G’s potential.

For Hardman, although the benefits of the technology are incontestable, this process won’t happen overnight.

“The success of the application of 5G will be measured in years not months,” he says. “But the urgency of implementation is now so that we can be ready and able to compete effectively in a digital world and create opportunities for all.”