Business enthusiasm for 5G remains limited, with research suggesting just 15% of UK businesses are currently investing in 5G.
Sceptical executives with constrained investment budgets through 2021 might choose to wait before exploring next-generation networks. However, organisations that explore the potential of 5G now could get ahead of the crowd, which is where an innovative approach in the leafy English county of Warwickshire aims to play a key role.
An alliance that includes the University of Warwick, Warwickshire County Council and telecoms giant BT aims to help entrepreneurs and businesses in the local area create useful applications for superfast networks.
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"We believe that 5G is a game-changer for innovation and that we can create new use cases, new products, new services," says David Plumb, chief innovation officer at the university. "By doing that, it allows us to create new companies and new jobs. The alliance is about aligning the interests of the three parties and focusing on a number of themes where we know 5G could make a big difference."
The formation of the alliance has enabled BT to switch on the UK's first dedicated public 5G network at the University of Warwick. The "connected campus" will bring 5G mobile coverage to students, staff and visitors across a 720-acre site. People in surrounding areas will also benefit.
Warwick's campus is in a rural area, situated in the English countryside between the city of Coventry and the towns of Warwick and Royal Leamington Spa. BT will soon extend 5G network coverage to the University's Creative and Digital Communities incubator, to support creative and digital companies working with the university and those located in Leamington.
The hope is that 5G networks will aid the work of students, academics and local businesses and create a cluster effect, helping like-minded individuals and entrepreneurial organisations in the area to develop new data-led applications.
Plumb believes the partnership will give the local area a first-mover advantage when it comes to the exploitation of 5G. While consultant EY reports the proportion of companies investing in 5G is expected to rise to 70% within three years, just 2% of firms have the technology operational within their organisations right now.
The alliance will back innovation in three cores areas: autonomous mobility, medtech and gaming. The University of Warwick and BT are creating Europe's first Connected Autonomous Mobility demonstration over a public 5G network. The demonstration will explore vehicle-to-vehicle communication using live data feeds, including LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data and live video alerts of road obstacles.
"The game changer is when vehicle number one is moving around the campus, and sees things that can help vehicle number two, three and four," says Plumb. "Rather than having to wait for information to be passed back and forth, the low latency and the fast speed means that you have real-time data, helping to improve safety in autonomous vehicles."
When it comes to medtech, University of Warwick's School of Engineering will explore how 5G could be used to help people monitor their health and wellness across their normal daily activities, explains Plumb.
"That work includes using medical devices, wearable thermometers and wearable blood-oxygen devices to collect data to proactively advise medical professionals. It's about supporting diagnoses, providing statistics and thinking about early diagnostics," he says.
Finally, the 5G network will be used to help develop innovative use cases in gaming by entrepreneurial students and researchers at Warwick, and companies in the local area. Leamington has become known as Silicon Spa because of the cluster of video-gaming companies in the town, many of which employ University of Warwick graduates.
"We've got this lovely cottage industry that's grown up, but because of its success, some of the big players globally have come in and invested too," says Plumb. "So it's a very robust ecosystem now with some very impressive characteristics, and it makes the town an exciting place to be. Yes, it's green and leafy in Leamington, but actually it's cutting-edge as well. The alliance will give people the time and the space to explore and play with the potential of 5G technology."
These three core elements are the starting point for the development of innovative 5G uses cases, but Plumb expects the alliance to sponsor advances in other areas. He talks about the potential for 5G to support the Internet of Things (IoT), allowing manufacturing firms to collect data much more quickly about the products and services they develop.
"Industry 4.0 and IoT are the bigger-picture elements we want to explore," he says. "This alliance is all about saying 'we're open for people to come and talk to us'. We've got the capability, the academics and the technical capability – and we would love to explore ideas."
Developing 5G proof of concepts in isolation can be a tough challenge. The university and its alliance partners have been working to build a collaborative community for the past 12 months. The long-term aim is to find creative ways that 5G can be used to foster more use cases that lead to new businesses, new jobs and economic growth across Warwickshire.
While Plumb recognises BT will focus its attention on the pioneering nature of the campus-wide network, he believes the innovative aspect of the initiative is the collaborative nature of the alliance itself. With 5G uptake suffering due to a paucity of use cases, this alliance could point the way towards a new joined-up way of making the most of the technology.
"For the first time, we've brought together a major network with a council and a research-intensive university, and we're going to deliver through a number of incubators in a very focused way. I think that is a very interesting and innovative construct. I haven't seen anybody else do that and I'm super-excited about it," he says.
Plumb says evidence so far from the alliance suggests collaboration is the best way to exploit the innovative potential of 5G. A former CTO at mobile provider O2, he advises other C-suite executives to work with partners and develop creative 5G-based solutions to organisational challenges.
"Talk about reinventing your business and think about how you can use new data streams and real-time data to create smart services that were never possible in the past. It's all about having that open-mindedness to the innovation, the challenge and new business models," says Plumb.