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Mobile's giant leap

2 November 2015

The future is being defined today. And the UK is battling to win the trillion-dollar race to 5G mobile and wireless technology from an unlikely place – the University of Surrey.

Instantaneous movie downloads and virtual reality gaming. The Internet of Things. Driverless cars. Mobile healthcare. Even remote surgery. The way we communicate, work and live our everyday lives is about to change.

According to mobile operators association the GSMA, data traffic is expected to increase ten-fold in the five years to 2019. Businesses and consumers that increasingly depend upon mobile networks are therefore looking at what’s next for digital infrastructure – and what’s planned is being touted as more than simple evolution.

Next generation connectivity – or 5G – won’t just be a small step on from 4G technology: experts predict the networks will be five times more reliable, offering speeds up to a thousand times faster, with no sense of delay (unlike the 60 milliseconds or so that consumers are currently used to). 

Speaking at this year’s Mobile World Congress, Ken Hu, Huawei's deputy chairman and rotating chief executive said: “More than just an upgrade, 5G will become a powerful platform that enables new applications, new business models and even new industries – as well as many disruptions.” 

And the way it’s being developed will help to drive the change: “This time the specific needs of businesses – whether they’re from industrial or manufacturing sectors, health or automotive – are being considered alongside consumers’ [needs], right at the outset,” says Paul Ceely, head of network strategy at EE. 

But it’s also a global race, to define and develop the infrastructure, set the global standards and gain that all-important first mover advantage. The first real-world applications of the new technology are expected by 2020 and – as an indication of the prize up for grabs – McKinsey has predicted the Internet of Things could add $11trn to the global economy by 2025.

From a leafy suburban location, academia, businesses and government have joined forces in an attempt to get the UK to the finishing line first.

An ambitious partnership

In September, the University of Surrey opened its 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), the world’s largest academic research centre dedicated to the new technology. It has also turned its campus on the edge of Guildford into a live testbed to trial emerging ideas and prove concepts by installing 44 cells around its perimeter.

To do so, it received £12m from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and £5m from its Local Enterprise Partnership, Enterprise M3. It also has partnerships in place with many of the UK’s leading telecoms players, from Huawei and Ericsson to Telefonica, Vodafone, Three and EE, making it a £70m example of collaboration between academia and business.

The location for this innovation isn’t as low key as you might think. As 5GIC’s chief operating officer Keith Robson highlights, Surrey has commercial form, working in partnership with Airbus over the past eight years to design, build, launch and operate small satellites as part of spin-out Surrey Satellite Technology.

This means that the university has developed legal frameworks to deal with issues such as intellectual property and confidentiality.

“As a university, we know the score. We run and manage one of Europe's best and most successful research parks; we've done a lot of commercial deals; we know how to protect IP,” says Robson.

Different perspectives

That experience has come in handy for a project that has hit the ground running with 15 patents to its name – and with significantly more partners.

Collaboration is essential to ensure that 5G solves real problems, both current and future

In fact, it helped the university to persuade five partners to get involved within just eight weeks in order to meet the bid deadline for HEFCE funding. But even so, Robson says getting so many businesses to collaborate under one roof wasn’t easy, particularly as the telecoms industry is known for its sensitivities. At one point it involved 24 corporate lawyers – and Robson jokes that the main consensus between all the parties involved is that the task they have before them “is very difficult”.

He continues: “Each of our partners has a different perspective on 5G. In the end it’s going to be a combination of all those perspectives and no one really knows how it will eventually settle.”

Yet Huawei’s Hu has emphasised that the “5G vision can only be realised through open, cross-industry collaboration.” And EE’s Ceely agrees: “This collaboration is essential to ensure that 5G solves real problems, both current and future.”

Each quarter the partners meet to map out their ideas and plans to establish a joint rolling research programme. And they have one clear target – to demonstrate the first full 5G system with 10 gigabits per second by 2018 (two years ahead of the perceived “deadline” of 2020) in a way that will highlight the possibilities and bring the technology to life for a broader audience.

Real-world benefits

The partners each have their own interest in taking a slice of the action, but Robson argues other businesses should too.

“It’s a massive opportunity, but we need businesses to be engaged,” he says. “Now that we’ve established and demonstrated our testbed network, the next phase is all about applications. We need to get bright, innovative companies coming to us with their ideas.

“That’s the real trick to ensuring this benefits the wider UK economy – making it work in the real world for real companies, new products and new services.”

Luke Ibbetson, group R&D director at Vodafone, says that alongside driverless cars or the “tactile internet” in which the movement of objects at a distance can be controlled with virtual reality interfaces, businesses may find other benefits within more comfortable reach. “This may enable new forms of training, or the ability to introduce services that offer customers the opportunity to interact with products before purchase.”

It's a massive opportunity, but we need businesses to be engaged

Ceely adds: “Researchers, operators, vendors and others are trying to ensure that no sectors are missed through oversight, which is in part why it’s so important that many more organisations get involved at this early stage.”

5GIC is already working with a group of nearly 20 regional SMEs, thanks to the Enterprise M3 grant. And several faculties around the university, including the medicine and veterinary schools, are working out what it means for them.

On this point, Robson refers back to the research that suggests that savings of €99bn could be made in the healthcare industry across Europe, “even with some fairly modest changes to working practices” that incorporate digital technologies.

5G technology is also likely to speed up the trend towards automation, for what Robson calls “more mundane tasks”, but he adds that it will generate other areas of employment too.

“We, as a university, can imagine a future where the majority of our courses have some element of mobile communications and internet technologies built into them – and we’re looking at that for the benefit of our students, so they can go out equipped for the world of work with some degree of understanding of how these things work,” he says.

It’s up to other businesses to “let their imaginations run riot”, he says.

For the 5GIC, it’s a matter of national pride to make the most of the opportunities and win the technological race. But, says Robson, the support of other businesses – and continued government backing for the broader innovation agenda – is what will take it to the next level.

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