What does the UK bring to 5G? Academic smarts harnessed to start-up brio

via Flickr ©  JeepersMedia (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © JeepersMedia (CC BY 2.0)

  • The 5G world is getting competitive
  • On the surface at least, different countries and regions are adopting their own approaches
  • The UK has its own approach

Apparently 5G is a ‘race’. At least it’s increasingly being characterised in that way by many, especially in the US where it appears to be something participants can either win or lose. Is it one of those zero sum technology games where the ‘winner’ gets to make more money and the ‘loser’ gets a failure complex?

I always thought it was a set of key standards to steer a global mobile technology environment - so as long as everyone agrees on the standards, everyone wins, no matter who gets to deploy first.  

Certainly, other countries or regions have what they imagine is their own particular approach to 5G. On the surface  it’s often less about winning, more about social or broad economic goals. But make no mistake, the competitive imperative is in there as well.

About three weeks ago we covered the Nordic approach. (see - Nordics aim to break away (slightly) to do their own 5G thing). As far as we can tell through the vague PR-speak, the Nordics (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Finland) want to maintain what they can fairly claim to be mobile technology leadership - they were amongst the first countries to really grasp the potential of mobile with both hands and, of course, they spawned two of the biggest mobile equipment and handset vendors in Ericsson and Nokia. But in doing that the countries want their common 5G program to develop and digitalize “all sectors of society”  and, they say, “to create the conditions in the public sector for digitalisation and 5G to flourish.”

So what about the UK?

In the context of Brexit and the looming end of EU regulatory oversight, how will 5G develop here? And what, currently, are the UK tendencies which differentiate its 5G environment and growing ecosystem from all the others.

Clues may be found in a report by Digital Catapult, commissioned by the UK government’s Innovate UK agency, which was tasked to scrape together as much data as it could (evidence-based) and paint a hopefully favourable picture of the UK’s 5G prospects.

What resulted was “a snapshot of the current state of 5G-relevant activities, community contributed insights and views on 5G in the UK, with the aim of informing wider stakeholders including industry, academia and startups,” says Digital Catapult.

The case for 5G has already been made, the report was about identifying how all the bits of the emerging UK 5G ecosystem could be brought together and which bits might be viewed as particularly valuable. It identified ‘sofwareisation, security, the development of applications and services, and system integration’ as being areas that the UK could make a good case for exploiting for its own needs and then offering to the rest of the world.

One of the UK’s big strengths is its world leading academia and much of the 5G effort here is led or influenced by academic input. The report mentions the creation of the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey, and the establishment of the 5GUK Universities Test Network, between University of Surrey University of Bristol and King’s College London.

Linked to this is what the report calls cross-innovation between academia and industry innovators. Academics and start-ups (often lead or staffed by academics) seem to be a UK speciality. Another important element is local government activities which focus on 5G infrastructure and testbed activity.

The picture painted is an ecosystem sort of hollowed out. Missing are the technology giants who dominate other markets. Instead the UK has  academic endeavour and smaller, focused enterprises and start-ups, capable of taking opportunities for niche technology solutions or applications, to make up for them. Academic smarts harnessed to start-up energy.

Overall, the UK ethos appears to be: it’s not how big or fast (or early) your network is, but what you can do with it that counts. The mobile network operator consensus is that 4G and 5G must coexist, with new use cases being proved out on 4G as 5G is being prepared.

This meshes with operators’ views that there is a lot more to be gained from their considerable 4G investments. A 4G first approach will therefore  ‘de-risk’ 5G investment case.

While bragging rights for firsts will no doubt be sought, past experience with 3G in particular has taught UK mobile operators that compelling new applications beget new and better network technologies, not the other way about.

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