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5G takes off with Urban Connected Communities Project

The 5G mobile technology is all about speed, but it sometimes looks like the super-fast revolution is happening in slo-mo. Tracey Westall, who is helping lead the UK’s biggest 5G trials, tells us it’s picking up speed.

14/07/2020 4 min read
Credit: Gordon Williams

After two years of talk and up-tempo government announcements, 5G still confuses or bemuses many of those who need to know about it. Yes, it could change the way we live our lives and the way we work and turn the Internet of Things into a reality. But what changes should office occupiers, designers, landlords and developers expect?

The place to look for evidence of what 5G really means for workplaces and those who design, build and own them is the West Midlands.

The region is the focus of the Urban Connected Communities Project – which is developing large-scale hubs in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton. Early 5G testbeds and trials programmes have driven work in the healthcare, tourism, transport and broadcasting sectors. The latest investment will support similar work in the logistics and manufacturing sectors.

The West Midlands Combined Authorities’ 5G plans include hospital outpatient services, connected ambulances, live streaming from bus CCTV cameras and work on autonomous vehicles and driverless cars with Jaguar Land Rover. Gradually, 5G will extend to other areas of the economy, which means the first signs of both the serious potential and serious problems associated with 5G will come from the West Midlands.

2019 was about foundations, in 2020 we can make what 5G means more tangible, and the West Midlands will be at the forefront

A year after the West Midlands experiment began, there are some serious achievements to point to, with more promised for 2020.

Intensive work over summer 2019 meant that Wolverhampton became the first of the region’s seven boroughs to achieve 5G readiness with masts and basic infrastructure. Now WM5G, a new organisation set up to deliver the UK’s first region-wide 5G test bed, predicts rapid progress in Birmingham and Dudley, as infrastructure work accelerates, with more announcements following on specialised uses (like the connected ambulances).

In September 2019, WM5G appointed Tracy Westall as one of its new non-executive directors and she came with an impeccable CV. She is currently a non-executive director for the Department for Transport and sits on its Future of Mobility advisory board. She also advises Bruntwood SciTech – a joint venture to connect the UK’s most ambitious cities, regions and science and technology communities – and served for many years on the main board of techUK, the trade association for the UK technology sector. If Tracy doesn’t understand what 5G means, then nobody does.

‘I keep telling people 5G is not just about being able to download films faster,’ Tracy says. ‘This technology is still in the start-up phase but will clearly play a role in how you plan and organise buildings with the large-scale, real-time data that the Internet of Things will generate. It will mean big changes in building utilisation, and new more dynamic property management.

West Midlands’ landlords and developers need to think of this as normal business planning. A normal evolution expenditure, which will give them a competitive advantage if they are first, Tracy tells us. ‘The difficulty today is that 5G is basically the plumbing for a new way of working, and it isn’t exciting unless you are really into plumbing,’ she says, adding quickly that she doesn’t mean to imply plumbing isn’t important.

Announcements are due early this year on extending test bed trials into various business sectors, including construction and mobility. There will also be work to accelerate development work on the apps that will help turn the 5G plumbing into Internet of Things reality.

‘2019 was about foundations, in 2020 we can make what 5G means more tangible, and the West Midlands will be at the forefront,’ Tracy predicts.

5 things you need to know about 5G


1. Who is doing 5G?

5G for mobile broadband is being rolled-out by private mobile network operators EE, O2, Vodafone and Three. The first commercial networks went live in major UK cities in 2019, but on a fairly small scale. The Government has a target that the majority of the population will be covered by a 5G signal by 2027.

2. 5G is not about phone signals

Unlike 4G, which meant an upgrade in the data capacity of mobile phones, 5G is about WiFi and access to fast internet connections with large bandwidths (e.g. high data capacity). The technology will require new radio spectrum frequencies and new mobile base stations, although the first 5G base stations will be upgraded mobile stations. Because the signal is weak, it may also require lots more small local booster cells in areas with high demand.

3. 5G will be slow and complicated to install

Not only is the 5G signal relatively weak, meaning you need more base stations, it will also require extra base stations inside buildings (because the signal has difficulty getting through windows and walls) and close to buildings (mounted on street furniture, for instance). This means lots of individual interventions, each with the potential to get complicated. It also needs full-fibre broadband to be working (because the base station has to be connected to the Internet). This requires significant investment.

4. Big Cities come first

London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester will be the first to get faster 5G mobile networks. By the end of 2019, another 10 cities got EE networks, which could transmit data at speeds faster than 10 Gigabits per second. These were Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol.

5. Watch out for 26 Gigahertz

Why should you watch out for 26GHz? Because this is the highest frequency 5G spectrum and will provide the really serious connectivity. When you hear this being quoted as available, you’ll know the 5G system is cooking. For now, Ofcom is predominantly working on the lower frequency end of the spectrum (700 MHz, meaning the 26GHz service will be about 37 times faster). Mid-frequency services will operate a 3.4-3.8 GHz. Trial licences are already available in the 26GHz band.

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