How can we fully realise the potential of 5G in local authorities?

5G Testbed

Written by David Altabev, Head of Urban Connected Communities, DCMS

Recently Digital Leaders organised their first smart cities workshop, hosted by Wigan Council. The aim of the workshop, attended by senior digital leaders from Sunderland, Bristol, Manchester, and others was to showcase leading trends in smart cities, with a focus on IoT and 5G.

Through my role at DCMS leading on the Urban Connected Communities programmes with West Midlands 5G, I was invited to host two sessions on 5G, exploring how 5G can enhance the lives of citizens in city regions. The discussions were wide and varied, reflective of different people’s experience and understanding of 5G, both as a technology and its ability to impact how we think about and design public services.

What I came away with, were three key areas where DCMS and other bodies can best support Local Authorities to enable them to fully realise the potential of 5G in their localities;

  1. Upskilling local authorities on how 5G can transform public services

From the delivery of social care, digital health, connected autonomous vehicles, 5G’s higher speeds, low latency and the ability to connect all our IoT devices in real-time. It focusses as much on connecting things as it does people and this distinction is critical to understanding potential applications.

Recently, BT in partnership with West Midlands 5G and University Hospital Birmingham demonstrated the potential for 5G connected ambulances, bringing together virtual and augmented reality along with haptic wearables. Through a VR headset, the clinician can view a high-definition feed enables the to visualise in real-time what the paramedic is seeing, and direct them through the haptic glove. 

Though the understanding of the technology varied, the three key benefits of higher internet speeds, low latency and the ability to connect more devices to the network were generally well understood. However, it highlighted a need for more upskilling across local authorities to ensure that more of them are aware of and champion the possibilities that 5G offers their cities and citizens.

  1. Understanding the value of local authority assets

4G networks could space masts up to 10 miles apart, whereas for 5G, the millimetre wave frequencies mean transmission distances can be as little as a few hundred metres. This necessitates a much denser network of masts and cells, particularly in cities as 5G can be blocked by trees and other objects. Local authorities are suddenly finding themselves key players in the collaborative ecosystem that will need to evolve to enable and accelerate the deployment of 5G infrastructure in cities. This is exactly the problem that the Infrastructure Acceleration team has been busying themselves with over the last year. Part of West Midlands 5G, the body set up to administer the £25m Urban Connected Communities programme. They’re building a map of all local authority and public sector assets (think buildings, lamp posts, traffic lights, etc)  in the West Midlands, adding in other data sets such as fibre cabinets, and developing a consistent streamlined methodology across the region to help MNOs and local authorities engage constructively in developing planning applications and compensation plans.

Connected Places Catapult’s 5G Action Learning Network is seeking to support local authorities to realise and leverage the value of their assets in develop neutral host networks for 5G. The idea being that the costs of infrastructure deployment are best overcome by a neutral party, in this case the local authority, building and operating a small cell network which participating MNOs can all share. The potential is for infrastructure deployment to be accelerated and at lower overall cost, with

the local authority earning a continuous licensing fee. A win for the local authority, and the MNOs.

  1. Positive community engagement

Whilst 5G has the potential to have a significant positive impact on people’s lives, its benefits are at a citizen and community level, often being over-shadowed by concerns over the potential impact to health. Public Health England’s guidance on 5G, and Ofcom‘s recent tests showing that the UK’s 5G network network is well within safety limits, have demonstrated that there should be no consequences for public health, and that they will continue to monitor this as the technology develops and scales. This however hasn’t stopped a flood of enquiries across local authorities from concerned local citizens seeking more information about the potential health effects, with one local authority having to address a co-ordinated campaign seeking to have the technology banned. Local authorities are in need of positive examples of where 5G has been trialled and tested in towns and cities across the UK to point to the benefits that this new technology can bring to citizens. DCMS’s six Phase 1 testbeds, announced in 2018 are examples of just that. As these projects come to an end, UK5G will be disseminating their results.

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