Over the last year, we have seen some truly phenomenal successes in hastening the roll-out and uptake of 5G technology.

West Midlands 5G’s (WM5G) Infrastructure Acceleration (IA) team has enabled the deployment of 5G, with infrastructure delivered 6-12 months ahead of schedule in Birmingham, Dudley and Wolverhampton. This has played a crucial part in the West Midlands being recognised as the most connected region in the UK.

While it is widely accepted that the onset of Covid-19 has hastened the uptake of digital technology, to truly harness the revolutionary benefits of 5G it is vital we get the foundations right.  WM5G’s ‘Barrier Busting’ approach has been a key driver in ensuring that the region’s seven local authorities were ready, willing and able to support the installation of the vital infrastructure needed to deliver the 5G experience and the potential benefits to the businesses and citizens in their areas.

Breaking down the barriers and delivering success

It has been an exceptionally busy and hugely successful 12 months for WM5G’s IA team, who have worked with local authorities across the region and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), enabling the roll-out of 5G infrastructure well ahead of schedule.

A great deal of this success has been down to WM5G’s ‘Barrier Busting’ approach, working with local authorities and MNOs to identify where we can evaluate and remove obstacles to 5G deployment.

The team’s specialist knowledge, insight and access to expert advice, enables them to inform and coordinate all parties involved in the process, ultimately ensuring the delivery of 5G to new communities.

Rhys Enfield, Director of Infrastructure Acceleration, points out that while deployment in some locations has been relatively smooth, others have provided sometimes unexpected issues: “As with any large-scale infrastructure delivery project, not everything has been plain sailing.

“Some local authorities have significant constraints in place around their planning policies; one council, for instance, had a moratorium on the use of its land or buildings, which prevented MNOs installing the necessary infrastructure.

“We met with the council in question in 2019 to discuss how important the delivery of 5G infrastructure will be to the future of the town and helped them work through the process and governance to remove obstacles.

“This demonstrates what can be achieved by working with our local authorities, helping them to fully understand the issues and providing the technical support to resolve them. This helps to move what could be difficult relationships with mobile operators to collaborative ones.”

Rhys and his team have found that in many cases once they have explained the benefits of 5G to their communities and provided some further information, council teams are generally onboard.

Rhys continued: “There’s a degree of quite understandable confusion, particularly when it comes to how the deployment of 5G interacts with things like the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the Electronic Communications Code (EEC). We have also been able to clarify confusion around perceived 5G health impacts spread by misinformation, by pointing the local authorities to reputable sources of information such as Public Health England. By ensuring an open, two-way dialogue we’ve been able to address a range of concerns.”

These conversations are supported by Digital Champions and Digital Coordinators – volunteers within the local authorities who receive training in the technology and its benefits and are then able to act as an internal liaison.

While the Digital Champions and Coordinators initiative is backed by government, not all authorities have fully engaged with it, leading to a disparity between those councils that have benefitted and those that have not.

Rhys added: “Having dedicated Digital Champions and Coordinators in place across the region is a massive help as we can engage with them directly on the more technical aspects of implementation and rely on them to then convey these messages back to their respective organisations.

“This approach becomes even more effective when councils have a Digital Ambassador, an elected member who champions 5G and its benefits within the council.

“Together, the Champions, Coordinators and Ambassadors are a vital conduit for councils and can be instrumental in helping them to understand the benefits of 5G for their citizens.”

The UK’s 1st digital connectivity map

Another key component to the success of Barrier Busting has been the development of a Connected Map.  Another example of working with the seven councils in the West Midlands, identifying and mapping suitable assets and infrastructure they own (such as land, buildings or lampposts) that could be made available for digital infrastructure.  When layered with existing and proposed coverage plans from the mobile and fixed network operators, this provides a powerful tool, allowing operators to understand what public assets are available in an easily digestible format.

This interactive tool enables local authorities and MNOs to review their priorities and plan for the future together, saving the MNOs both time and money and thereby attracting greater investment into the region.

Small cells deliver big advantages

Roughly the size of a laptop, the cells are often fixed to lampposts or street furniture within urban environments. While only capable of boosting the 4G and 5G signal a couple of hundred metres or so, when used together with large towers (macrocells) they are able to generate a significantly improved signal. The greater the density of the cells, the higher the quality of the signal. These units are particularly useful when deployed in confined high footfall areas such as stadiums and city centres.

Rhys said: “We are looking to initially deploy small cells in Coventry, Wolverhampton and Birmingham with the first agreements in place shortly.  However, the real benefit of small cell technology roll out is to further strengthen coverage and capacity within the region.”

Broadening the focus

While the West Midlands is leading the way in the roll-out of 5G infrastructure, it is not operating in isolation with large cities including London, Manchester and Glasgow are also undertaking their own trials.

WM5G works collaboratively with these cities and others across the country – sharing knowledge and learnings of accelerating the roll out of 5G to maximise opportunity for other councils to adopt best practice.

Rhys said: “We’re working with the Department for Culture, Media and Sports (DCMS), helping them to put a plan together to work more effectively with all councils across the UK.  It is exceedingly important that we find the right ways to work with both those who are ready and willing to take part and embrace 5G and those that are less sure of the positive outcomes.”

Rhys emphasised: “It’s important that we work collaboratively on the future development and deployment of the infrastructure that will enable 5G.  We have to remember that this is the foundation for all the digital innovation that will help to position the UK as a world leader in 5G technology.”