Perhaps we’ve all seen enough inspiring 5G videos now?
Earlier this month, the UK Government announced some results of its 5GTT (5G Testbeds and Trials) Programme—which it says is its nationally coordinated programme of investment in all things Fifth Gen, which started two years ago with a claimed £200m of taxpayer support. Absolutely accepting that this is far from over, what should industry be making of what seems to have “succeeded” so far?
Let’s make sure we’re not comparing the wrong sort of pome fruit with any inappropriate citrus here—though that’s easy to do, as there’s a fair bit of spread responsibility for who’s in charge of what (like UK5G is in one corner and DCMS seems to be in charge over in another). 5GTT is about applications, benefits realised, and lessons learned from Government-supported third-party projects to identify and facilitate the transition from innovation to early market adoption. The organisers stress that it’s likely that several stackable use cases are needed to make that happen, e.g., a few 5G applications/uses/needs would have to be bundled together to ensure the rollout of infrastructure (i.e., money and spades in pavements or lanes) is justified by sufficient demand.
We’re happy with that. This is about enticing interest and building a sense of the possible. Let’s therefore assess the latest set of results against the stated mission of if it can indeed accelerate the deployment of 5G in the UK, maximise its benefits across UK society and the economy re productivity and efficiency, and create new opportunities for UK businesses at home and overseas.
There are quite a few building up (go here to see them all). So far, 8 projects have been completed and 30 more are continuing in 13 regions across the UK, with around 200 project partners. In April, a nice example of double-purposing of existing infrastructure was announced in the shape of a South Yorkshire trial for possibly connecting up to 8,500 homes and businesses to faster broadband via 17 kilometres of drinking water pipes. Other examples that stand out for us include 5G enhancing a visitor experience (a much-thought about use case), in this case at the Eden Project in Cornwall, where a 5G-powered virtual environment was set up during COVID. Also in the entertainment vertical, or perhaps arguably in B2B events, we have a digital immersive “hybrid festival experience” that broadcast live directly to audiences at remote locations from venues like the Brighton Dome and the 02 Arena so a music fan in Edinburgh could experience their favourite artist live in LA or jam with another artist in London without having to leave their front room.
On the page you’ll see examples of 5G experimentation in local government in areas as diverse as Wessex and the West Midlands. There seems to be a (very sensible) emerging area of interest around logistics, e.g. a programme to help develop 5G products and services to demonstrate the potential of smart ports. Past successes include the largest 5G mmWave mesh network in the UK (and second largest in the world), which set up an affordable 5G private network to test new health applications.
It’s all great. There’s even a genuinely cool 5G concept video worth 3 minutes of your time. But at the same time, 5G is here in the UK, and as of late last year Ofcom reckoned around half of the UK population was covered. Kevin Bacon keeps shaving people remotely and landing planes with it on my telly. And as any private 5G network will be optimised for a specific purpose that probably isn’t going to be allowed to be tech transferred to anyone else lest commercial advantage be lost… what exactly is the 5GTT work and support now proving?
Time for new UK 5G companies, not new 5G videos
That sounds very Philistine, and we apologise. But are there really any use cases here that are completely new news for anyone who’s been tracking 5G for the past couple of years? That 5G Festival, which was said to be a technologically complete end-to-end, standards compliant, commercial and open-source network services, inter-connected with O2’s public 5G network… where’s the new O2 business unit selling that as a package on? Who’s the first UK start-up that will corner the market in standalone 5G private port automation stacks?
Bottom line: we love 5G. We applaud 5G ideas. Collaboration between University, Town Hall, boffin and public: can’t get enough. We agree that people need inspiration to get cracking with the stuff. There was a place for the government to act as cheerleaders here.
But isn’t this all rather thin, often COVID-necessitated, stuff really? Is any new tech really being envelope-pushed here? Is it time to retire 5G Testbed and Trial and make it into 5G Product and Industry so that we really move from PoCs to live services?
We write this hoping that a 5GTT participant gets in touch and tells us why we’re wrong. Even better—that an entrepreneur is so annoyed with our carping they found a company to show us what idiots we are for ever doubting the value of a bit of inspiration.