The West Midlands is set to find out whether or not it has been shortlisted to receive more than £100 million of government funding toward the development of the country’s first ever 5G network.
Touted as the next major technological revolution, the development of 5G over the next decade will help to define how we use and access goods, information and services for the next 20 years.
But what is it? How will it work? And what could it mean for the West Midlands? Here, we try and answer some of the questions surrounding this ground-breaking technology, with the help of Mayor Andy Street.
What is 5G?
Put simply, 5G is a faster, more reliable mobile network which will help to improve connectivity across the world. 5G stands for ‘fifth generation mobile networks’, and is the next step along the road from 3G and 4G.
What’s the big deal?
While on the face of it 5G might just seem like a quicker way to check the football scores on a Saturday afternoon, the implications of this technology are set to be huge.
Firstly, 5G isn’t just faster than 4G; it’s much faster. The technology will be at least ten times quicker than the 4G networks currently in place, with some estimates putting it at 100 times faster. To put that into perspective, it means downloading an entire HD movie in under ten seconds – the same process currently takes about 8 minutes on the 4G network.
Latency is also expected to be much lower – meaning that the lag you experience when switching from one website to another will no longer be noticeable.
“Obviously it’s the next generation of connectivity technology, it’s substantially better than 4G that we currently have in most places,” says Mayor Andy Street.
“And what it would really do is enable very quick downloading, so for example if you take the commercial end of this, you’d be able to download Netflix on the bus in to work.
“But far more importantly from an economic point of view, it will enable some of our new industries to really leap forward.”
What could it mean for the West Midlands?
The implications of having this technology in the West Midlands are hard to overstate.
Last month, it was announced that Coventry is set to become one of the country’s first real-world testing beds for the development of autonomous cars – and 5G will be vital for the successful operation of driverless cars across the region, allowing vehicles to communicate with each other and the outside world in record time.
What’s more, development of this technology over the next few years would help to transform the experiences of visitors coming to the region for flagship events such as the Commonwealth Games and UK City of Culture.
Beyond this, 5G would have huge ramifications on the way the NHS operates – with faster connectivity allowing more remote health services to be accessed. One estimate says that, by the time the technology is fully functional, an incredible 1.1 million of GP hours a year could be freed up.
The technology would also allow the ‘Internet of Things’, or IoT, to grow exponentially, to the point where soon every device in your home could become a ‘smart’ device. In addition to this, it’s also expected that we’ll see greater use of virtual reality across more applications – imagine your sat nav maps being beamed directly onto your windscreen when you need them.
“If you think of autonomous vehicles, how the data from each vehicle is transmitted, managed, it is going to rely on a network of this nature, so it really pushes that whole innovation on,” says the Mayor.
“And if you think of our whole creative sector, and the way in which people in that sector, those Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs), are managing imagery, taking film, how they transmit it and download it, it’s really important there as well. So it’s not just nice to have because we all want to be better connected in our daily lives, this really underpins some of our economic future.”
So what are we bidding for?
The shortlist that’s set to be announced tomorrow is for between £100 and £150 million in government funding to create the first fully functional 5G network in the UK.
Known as the Urban Connected Communities Project, the bid has been backed by over 40 letters of support from businesses across the region, including universities, the NEC and Birmingham Airport.
A successful bid by the West Midlands Combined Authority could see a network installed across the entire region, as the Mayor explains.
“So this would stretch from Coventry in the east, through Solihull, Birmingham, and into the Black Country toward Wolverhampton,” he said.
“And for the first time it would move 5G to scale, because previously all the government’s test beds have been very tight. And that was good, to test the technology and application, but this is really now a game-changing opportunity.
“So although it does sound a bit convoluted it really is an important one for the West Midlands to win.”
Are there any downsides?
One of the biggest pitfalls of creating a brand new 5G network is the amount of infrastructure required to create it.
Experts note that the 5G network would need far more masts and aerials than previous networks – approximately ten times the density that was previously required. Proponents of the bid say that most of this would be attached to already existing housing and other buildings, but it is not yet clear what exactly will be required.
On top of this come the obvious dangers of being the 5G guinea pig for the UK, with the technology trialled and tested in our region before anywhere else. However, the Mayor sees this as an exciting opportunity, rather than a big risk:
“Each local authority is partnering on this of course, and yes, it will be slightly daunting, the responsibility of being the first to do this for the region,” he said.
“But I think that’s hugely outweighed by the excitement, the sense of opportunity, and the pioneering spirit that’s going around. So we’ve got to face those issues. And one of the reasons that I hope we will be selected is the collective determination across the West Midlands to tackle all of those issues.”
Who else is in the running?
Until the shortlist is announced tomorrow it is difficult to tell exactly what we are up against – though areas such as Glasgow, Aberdeen, Peterborough and Cambridge are all reported to have placed their own bid with the Government.
And Mr Street says that, while competition will be stiff, the advantages of being the first with this technology are huge.
“I think it’s a classic case, and you see this with any new technology adoption, that if you are the first it acts as this sort of magnet,” he said.
“People will be more willing to come and be part of this if we are both getting a reputation for and doing this first mover thing. That’s why I’m very keen that we should be the first region to have this connectivity.”
So what’s next?
After announcing the shortlist, the government will begin to hear full pitches from successful regions over the next month or so, with a final decision expected by the end of July.
After the winner is announced preparations are expected to begin by the end of the year, with the first steps toward creating a fully functioning 5G network expected to be taken next year.
And winning the funding is something which the Mayor believes would really feed in to the sense of excitement currently felt across the West Midlands, particularly in regards to the future.
“We would have no chance of winning this if it wasn’t for all the other things that are going on,” he said.
“Because you have to be able to say ‘this will drive our industrial renaissance, this will drive how we’re thinking about managing health data, this will drive the whole way in which we present the city of culture and the Commonwealth Games.
“5G is coming either way – but this is our opportunity to be at the forefront of it.”