5G, keeping communities socially connected

2 people talking outside using devices

Written by Ann Williams, Co-Chair, Liverpool 5G

In 2018, I joined a team of innovators whose vision for Liverpool included equal access to free public sector technologies for keeping communities healthy, independent, and socially connected. 

The team became Liverpool 5G, after winning funding from DCMS-funded 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, and built Europe’s largest 5G public sector network in Kensington, Liverpool. The network gives volunteers free access to technologies like a device that monitors health conditions remotely and an AI wound care management app. 

Providing these technologies free to people in need was the project’s standout aim. A mix of public sector, academic organisations, and SMEs, Liverpool 5G is committed to improving people’s health/life chances. The digital evolution of telecare is integral to improving people’s lives but not all Liverpool communities have access to reliable connectivity so can’t take advantage of new public sector technologies.

With this in mind, Liverpool 5G began looking at new models for supporting digital health technologies, which were sustainable and scalable. Our team designed a hybrid 5G small cell network, using unlicensed 60Ghz spectrum, existing city council fiber, and LoRaWan backhaul. This gave us flexibility and we were able to give the community free access to ultra-reliable connectivity. 

In the first two years, technologies community volunteers trialed included a push-to-talk anti-loneliness device and a pharmacy link, for taking medicines at home. They liked them. They said the technologies gave them independence and made them feel connected to their community. There were savings to health and social care services too. These were estimated at £240,000 per 100 users.

Further DCMS funding, extending the project to 2022, giving our team the space to grow and expand the network. This year the community will benefit from the addition of new technologies including 5G-supported GP services; children’s anti-anxiety game (Chill Panda); and ‘haptic hug’ (a virtual hug from an absent family member). We’re also providing 5G connectivity to a local school so any children home-school have the best possible connectivity.

Our project feels prescient right now. The importance of affordable, reliable connectivity has been brought into stark relief by the pandemic. Everyday activities like going to school, going to the doctor, a meeting with work colleagues became exclusively online activities and begged the question, how do you participate in an online society if your connection keeps timing out?

There was already an urgency as current analogue social care devices won’t work post 2022 and most GP services have been edging towards an online presence for a while. If there are any gains from the pandemic, the concentration of funding and expertise into essential digital services, during the pandemic, may be one and mustn’t now be sidelined.

The government began prioritising the digitisation of health and social care services, with a 2018 strategy and new government unit, NHSX, in 2019. 2020 saw increased use of triage and remote appointments in primary and secondary care, an increase in technology to manage the effects of the pandemic, and a surge in patients’ uptake of remote health services, including registrations for the NHS App, NHS login and e-prescription services. A global report suggests that this digital shift, as rapid and unexpected as it was, did benefit both patients and staff.

If these digital services are helpful to people, in the long-term, and help save money and resources for the NHS/ social care sector continued investment in them should be encouraged. However, if we fail to democratise access to them, via affordable connectivity in all communities, we could be creating a two-tier health and social care system. 

We don’t have the luxury of dragging our feet looking for answers to digital deprivation,  Investment in innovative, agile technology solutions, like Liverpool 5G, could offer digitally deprived communities the best chance of joining in a digital health/ social care revolution that has the potential to improve everyone’s life chances and choices.

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