West Midlands selected as UK’s first multi-city 5G testbed

West Midlands selected as UK’s first multi-city 5G testbed

The West Midlands has been selected to become the home of the UK’s first multi-city 5G testbed, the government announced this morning.

The multimillion-pound programme will pave the way for the future rollout of 5G technologies across the UK, making the region the first in the country to be ready to trial new 5G applications and services at scale.

The Urban Connected Communities Project, the next step in the government’s 5G Testbed and Trials Programme, will develop a large-scale 5G pilot across the region, with hubs in Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton.

The 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme is part of the government’s revamped Industrial Strategy.

Following its selection in open competition, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) will now work with industry partners and the 5G Testbeds and Trials Team at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) on preparing a formal business case, with the first of a series of projects expected to go live early next year.

Up to £50 million is currently available for the scheme, subject to development and approval of the business plan. This includes £25 million from DCMS and a further £25 million in match funding from regional partners.

An additional £25 million may be made available at a later stage, according to this morning’s announcement.

The DCMS funds will come from the £200 million that the government has set aside to develop 5G technologies as part of its £1 billion-plus investment programme in next-generation digital infrastructure, including via the £31 billion National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF).

The total investment made from public funds for the project will be matched by commercial funding, said the government.

So what is the West Midlands doing with the money?

Public benefits

The WCMA’s bid has an initial focus on the health, construction, and automotive sectors, with an overall ambition to help drive economic growth and “benefit people’s lives through participation in new digital technologies and digitally transformed public services”, said the government.

Subject to formal approval, initial plans include:

  • Hospital outpatient appointments and emergency consultations carried out remotely by reliable video links, without service drop-outs or latency barriers. As well as being more convenient for patients, this would mean they could play back footage of their appointment at a later date or share it securely with a family member or carer to help inform their care.
  • Connected Ambulances: Paramedic crews at an incident could access specialist advice while they are at the scene, such as by videoconferencing with consultants or other clinical specialists. Live streaming of patient data from ambulances en route to hospital would help inform the care that patients receive on arrival.
  • Live streaming of CCTV footage from buses, enabling immediate action against anti-social or criminal behaviour. Intelligent cameras using artificial intelligence (AI) to identify incidents could provide an opportunity for far greater coverage than is possible at present.
  • Autonomous vehicles will transform the way we travel, preventing major accidents, improving traffic flow, and reducing energy consumption. The WMCA is to partner with Jaguar Land Rover to facilitate real-world testing of driverless cars.

Minister for Digital, Margot James, said: “5G has the potential to dramatically transform the way we go about our daily lives, and we want the citizens of the UK to be among the first to experience all the opportunities and benefits this new technology will bring. The West Midlands Testbed, which is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, will be instrumental in helping us realise this ambition.”

Mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street said, “This announcement is game-changing for the West Midlands economy. This will be the backbone of our future economy and society.

“We have been working to put the foundations in place to grow the industries which will create the jobs of the future, particularly around driverless vehicles and life sciences where we have a genuine advantage. To deliver the future of these industries we need the power of 5G.”

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands and former MD of John Lewis.

“The potential of this technology is endless – and we will enjoy the benefits first,” added Street.

“From monitoring the health of babies and the elderly, to the way our people are linked to the economy of the future, the way companies do business, the way we deliver public services, the experience of travellers on public transport, and the way we deliver the City of Culture [Coventry in 2021] and the Commonwealth Games… everything can be made better thanks to the power of this technology.”

Plus: UK cities ranked for mobile performance

In related news, London has been ranked as the city with the worst mobile network performance in the UK, according to a new report.

The RootMetrics by IHS Markit report saw other home nations’ capitals perform much better: Belfast is the best city in the UK for mobile network performance, with Edinburgh second. Sheffield ranks in third place, followed by Glasgow in fourth, and Manchester in fifth.

London will need 5G sooner than other UK cities, suggests the report.

Internet of Business says

The government’s ambitions for 5G can’t be faulted and the UK’s determination to be in the vanguard of deployments with both regional and city-wide rollouts in 2018 is good news for the UK.

However, the single biggest brake on the country’s digital ambitions remains its woefully inadequate baseline broadband service, with the government’s preferred definition of 24Mbps as “superfast” being nothing short of a national embarrassment – especially when many customers receive nothing like the “superfast” speeds they pay for.

With the UK languishing at number 30 in global fixed-line broadband speeds, and outside the top 50 in mobile broadband, it is playing catch-up with nearly all of its nearest competitors and allies, as our recent in-depth report revealed.

The global average top speed for downloads is 46.41Mbps, according to Speedtest.net. Meanwhile, Gigabit broadband connectivity can genuinely be described as “superfast” and is 41 times quicker than the UK government’s preferred definition.

The government’s real priority, therefore, should be forcing the acceleration of full-fibre broadband across the UK. Until that is achieved, the UK will – tragically – remain a digital also-ran, despite its excellent 5G progress.

As Jeremy Chelot, CEO of community-focused high-speed broadband operator Community Fibre, told Internet of Business:

“Full fibre will be the foundation stone of 5G. The 5G vision requires thousands of mobile base stations, with each requiring data backhaul from a true full-fibre connection to operate effectively. It will therefore be vital that true full-fibre infrastructure is installed to enable the benefits of this revolution.

“Similarly, devices connected to the Internet of Things will require a responsive data connection that can only be delivered over a true full-fibre network. It is certain that without true full-fibre networks to underpin these technologies, smart cities will simply not be viable.”

At present, the UK only has four percent full-fibre connections, according to the government’s most recent figures released in June – a one percent increase on its previous assessment in March.

Carried forward, a one percent rise per quarter means that, at current rates, 96 quarters need to elapse before the UK reaches 100 percent full-fibre coverage: 24 years, or the year 2042.

The government has stated its determination to reduce that timescale, but only by nine years, meaning that the UK is – at best – 15 years away from achieving anything approaching 100 percent full-fibre connectivity.