'Brexit gave us the impetus': How 5G innovation has surged within the UK

With the 'cushion' of the EU's 5G R&D programs removed following the Brexit decision, the UK government is experiencing a resurgence of productivity in pushing towards 5G through its innovation lab at the University of Surrey with industry and research partners.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

No longer able to rely on the European Union's swathe of 5G network technology research and development initiatives, the United Kingdom government has turned inwards to look for programs to increase and digitise its economic productivity, according to 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) University of Surrey COO Keith Robson.

While Robson stressed that the research sector neither expected nor wanted the United Kingdom to exit as a member of the EU, he conceded that it has had the side benefit of sparking funding and support from the government as part of its refreshed emphasis on productivity and innovation.

Post-Brexit innovation in the UK government

"The last thing the university sector wanted was Brexit. We were aghast when Brexit happened," Robson told ZDNet.

"But it's had the effect of sharpening minds, sharpening focus ... it took the cushion [of the EU] away, and we really had to look inwards at what we were doing. It gave us the impetus."

The EU has been exploring 5G development since 2013, when the European Commission pledged €700 million in public funding, backed up by five times that amount from the private sector, towards 5G.

The European Commission's 5G Public Private Partnership (5G PPP) has been investing substantially in 5G research and development since then, in July 2015 unveiling its 19 first-stage projects into which it invested €128 million "in order to put Europe in the lead of the 5G technology race".

The EU has also partnered with China, South Korea, Japan, and Brazil to cooperate on 5G research, standardisation, spectrum, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Without being able to rely on the EU driving such initiatives within the UK following Brexit, the government was more easily convinced to lend its support to internal projects, Robson said.

"None of us in the UK ever thought we'd be Brexiting, but we are," he said.

"Somewhere along the line, the UK Treasury picked up on the sort of idea that 'OK, the UK needs this much better mobile internet network to give the UK better productivity'."

As such, the UK government's recent Future Communications Challenge Group (FCCG) report outlined the collaborative effort needed from government departments, industry, and academia and "requests government to use the funding announced in the Autumn Statement to fund 5G activities to provide the catalyst for the UK to improve our national infrastructure and services from transport to healthcare, from education to entertainment".

"It will ensure that the UK seizes the real chance to be a world leader in the development of 5G, playing a key role in defining industry standards to support an estimated 5 to 6 percent of UK GDP per annum," the FCCG's UK strategy and plan for 5G & Digitisation -- driving economic growth and productivity: January 2017 Interim report [PDF] said.

The report listed the 5GIC University of Surrey and its industry collaboration program as two of the five major ongoing 5G R&D projects within the UK, alongside the University of Bristol's Smart Internet Lab; smart city projects such as "Bristol is Open" and "Digital Greenwich"; and King's College London's 5G Tactile Internet Lab initiative.

More recently, the British government also outlined its post-Brexit digital strategy to put "skills, infrastructure, and innovation" at the forefront of its agenda to support "Britain's world-leading digital economy".

As part of this strategy, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Karen Bradley said 4 million free digital skills training courses would be created under the part-industry, part-government program.

"Our vision for how we make sure the UK is that leading country for people to use digital ... so we can all benefit from the advantages the digital economy brings," Bradley told ITV in early March.

According to Robson, this is all part of the "Brexit effect": A refocusing on internal programs towards productivity.

"Maybe it's the Brexit effect -- this absolute sort of impact caused this unbelievable focus in government, and we just happened to be there with the right kind of hero plan," Robson surmised.

"I guess we offered them a solution to a very possible problem."

The 5GIC University of Surrey

(Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

To the south-west of London stands the 5GIC University of Surrey in Guildford, described by Robson as "a very ambitious global R&D centre".

Working with the 5GIC are the UK government's Department of Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (BCMS), which oversees the telecommunications sector in the UK.

The centre got off the ground at the end of 2015, after the government went to tender for large innovation projects where it advised that it would kick in between £10 million and £100 million -- as long as the project received twice as much funding privately.

Robson maintains that the centre received government support by chancing upon Treasury's desired language of "productivity" around 2015, followed by its larger-scale project approval during the government's Autumn Statement at the end of 2016.

"The centre here arose from an entirely opportunistic bid ... four years ago to a different part of the UK government," he explained.

"The UK government now has been really pushing universities a long while to become 'engines of the UK economy' -- is the language they use ... we happened to go with the language of 'productivity' [rather than innovation].

"I had not reckoned with Treasury's intense interest in productivity, and the fact we happened to use the language of productivity, and what happened was it all got through intact into the UK Autumn Statement."

Chancellor Philip Hammond used the Autumn Statement in November last year to announce that the government would be investing over £1 billion to become a "world leader" in 5G, as well as to encourage the rollout of a full-fibre fixed-line network.

Hammond said at the time that he hoped the government's spending would kickstart private investment in the sector in order to conduct further 5G trials.

"Our future transport, business, and lifestyle needs will require world-class digital infrastructure to underpin them. So my ambition is for the UK to be a world leader in 5G," Hammond said at the end of last year.

"So we will invest over £1 billion in our digital infrastructure to catalyse private investment in fibre networks and to support 5G trials."

During the 2017 Spring Budget last month, Hammond further promised £16 million of the government's funds "for a new 5G mobile technology hub"; £200 million for projects leveraging full-fibre broadband private sector investments; £300 million towards supporting science and innovation research support, including for 1,000 STEM PhD places and fellowships; and £270 million to "keep the UK at the forefront of disruptive technologies like biotech, robotic systems, and driverless vehicles".

According to Robson, the 5GIC's founders were able to convince Treasury that the UK needed faster, future-proof mobile networks and the community- and economic-centric apps that would accompany this -- and that the way to achieve this was to undertake research and development in 5G to put the UK ahead in mobile connectivity.

"The guys from Treasury who kind of got it, that what you need is the mobile internet and the transport applications, health applications," he said.

The project was so successful that the 5GIC now has 26 corporate partners, with its funding comprising £12 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and more than £68 million in co-investments from its industry and regional partners.

The 5GIC's partners include Chinese networking technology giant Huawei; UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom; operators Vodafone, BT, O2, Telefonica, and EE; tech companies Fujitsu and Samsung; mobile radiocommunications equipment manufacturer Rohde & Schwarz; and the BBC.

Robson said Huawei has been a "stalwart" since the very beginning of the project, supplying funding as well as the kit and support for the 5GIC's research experiments, with the centre now amounting to being the UK government's primary 5G innovation hub.

5G: The way forward

Upon its opening in September 2015, 5GIC director professor Rahim Tafazolli said the lab's aim was not only about increasing mobile speeds; its testbed facility would more importantly allow its many networking and operator partners to test technology developments and applications in a real-world setting before bringing them to market.

"While we have already achieved record-breaking speeds, 5G is not only about delivering faster mobile internet; it is a transformative set of technologies that will radically change our private and professional lives by enabling innovative applications and services, such as remote healthcare, wireless robots, driverless cars, and connected homes and cities, removing boundaries between the real and cyber worlds," Tafazolli said.

The 5GIC is also working on ensuring that each connected solution can be tailored for where it is being deployed.

"Government is going to have to be key in this, but also we're going to see regional flavours: For cities, they're going to want certain things; there'll be high-tech enterprise zones that want certain things; and you're going to have then this kind of overlapping thing of the government and political priorities ... largely about just getting connected," Robson said.

"But then there's the regional stuff, the local stuff, which is about particular flavours from the local population and industry.

"We're not going to know until we get this into the hands of some large-scale demonstrators, we're not going to know where the real pull is ... we'll really start to find out what it is that the farmers want, veterinary care people want, the automotive sector wants. That's going to be a big shake-out in the next three or four years.

While the lab's testbed is powered by a 4G-Advanced network, it is being gradually upgraded to include 5G technologies developed through research with its partners, with the aim of delivering speeds of up to 10Gbps per cell by 2018.

As such, the 5GIC is now demonstrating pre-5G solutions such as network virtualisation and network slicing across the existing 4G networks in what it described as a "pragmatic" approach to enabling the UK government's visions of productivity-aimed applications for health, transport, education, smart homes, smart cities, and entertainment.

"When you start to be able to get this sort of functionality, you can see how you can start to drive capacity into those key areas that are connected to the things that we assured for Treasury, so transport, high mobility, city-critical health applications, and digital gaming and video -- so you begin to see that 'OK, we can take that first step through driving through the SDN, the network slicing', and that is really exciting," Robson said.

"This is groundbreaking; we're just not aware of any of this going on anywhere else."

Without a 'Brexit' catalyst, how does the Australian government compare on 5G?

Despite unveiling its " innovation agenda" in December 2015 and rolling out a fixed-line broadband network across the country, the only arm in the Australian government currently focused on 5G is the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

The ACMA's interest in 5G is confined to spectrum arrangements, however, with the government agency opening an investigation into 5G mobile broadband spectrum in October 2015 and updating its 5G spectrum outlook a year later.

"Enabling the next phase of mobile network development is likely to require the ACMA's attention in a number of areas, including supporting the international harmonisation of spectrum arrangements to provide economies of scale for manufacturers and provide flow-through benefits to Australian consumers arising from lower device costs," the ACMA said at the end of last year.

"International spectrum harmonisation and technology standardisation, as well as corresponding international deployments, are at an early stage ... the ACMA's mobile broadband work program will continue to be updated to account for developments surrounding spectrum for 5G."

Besides this, the ACMA said it will "continue to support industry in the development of 5G, including facilitating trials" through its guidelines governing the issuing of scientific apparatus licences and making spectrum temporarily available for the purposes of trialling new radiocommunications technologies.

Meanwhile, Australia's three mobile carriers, Optus, Telstra, and Vodafone Australia, are separately working towards researching, trialling, and building their own 5G networks by 2020 with industry partners Huawei, Ericsson, and Nokia.

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) has also set up the 5G Group, which is yet another industry body, not a governmental body -- although it has liaised with Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel.

"It's going to be a small industry group with a scope based on the opportunities and challenges within the 5G evolution and related policy, regulatory, and technology issues to be discussed from both domestic and international perspectives," AMTA CEO Chris Althaus said when describing the 5G Group's purpose.

"There are collaborative partnerships on 5G springing up around the world -- there is [the] major Public Private Partnership in the EU, and in [the] United Kingdom a 5G innovation centre is being created. We want to understand what those partnerships represent, and bring an Australian perspective through contact and cooperation on 5G."

Despite the lack of directly comparable funding or initiatives from the Australian government, however, Huawei Australia chair John Lord -- who said Huawei's primary way of pushing into the 5G space is via forming research partnerships across the globe -- in February said the Australian government appears to be catching up on industry support for 5G.

"I would have said about three to six months ago they should have been doing more, but I think that we're now seeing that," Lord told ZDNet in late February.

"I think now you're seeing these bodies form, you're seeing them all get together, you're seeing a 5G coordinating body that will also dispatch with the industry, which we consider is essential ... the Australian government I think is catching up very rapidly.

"The awareness has happened and the government now is really getting active in these areas."

But while the Australian government is open to meeting with industry groups in an impartial sense and directing its communications agency to look into spectrum requirements, it has yet to make contributions on anything close to the scale with which the UK has been focusing on 5G since the vote in favour of Brexit.

Disclosure: Corinne Reichert travelled to the 5GIC University of Surrey as a guest of Huawei

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