4G and smartphones have transformed our lives

Over the last decade, 4G, smartphones and apps have transformed the way most people live and work. On average, adults spend over three-and-a-half hours using smartphones every day – often looking at their phones more than 150 times per day. From banking to social networking to travel to takeaways to gaming to photography to email, it’s hard to think of many areas of our lives and our work that haven’t been transformed.

Connectivity has never been more important given COVID-19

Furthermore, connectivity has never been more crucial to society than right now. The outbreak of COVID-19 has cast a spotlight on mobile and broadband technology, the enabler for so many of the services we now rely on. Keeping connected helps our healthcare services and other key workers respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, it helps those in lockdown at home interact with their loved ones via Zoom and other conferencing services, and it is also helping tens of millions of employees to work remotely.

According to a recent survey by Ernst & Young, people are increasing the amount of connected services they use. Since the start of lockdown, 29% of consumers have used TV streaming services such as Netflix more frequently. 30% of people are reporting an increase in home working via collaborative applications such as Microsoft Teams. While 35% of citizens are making more mobile phone calls.

Meanwhile, both broadband providers and mobile network operators are perceived to be coping well by approximately 75% of their customers, with only around 5-7% having reason to voice negative complaints. When Ernst & Young quizzed consumers on what it is that their broadband or mobile provider should be prioritising to help with the COVID-19 outbreak, the top consideration was ‘ensuring reliable and resilient network performance’.

As such, mobile network operators have been significant contributors to the global response to the virus. However, it’s not just the reactive work of the operators that we should commend, vital infrastructure acceleration work – such as the upgrading of masts, improvement of network coverage, addressing poor signal areas – has been ongoing for many months in the UK, which is now proving to have been even more worthwhile.

This spike of growth in connectivity usage will continue

No matter how we end up emerging from this global crisis, the trend of an increased demand for digital connectivity will only continue. For example, now that the possibility has been proven, millions more workers will continue to rely on remote working in order to increase productivity and improve their respective work-life balances. A rise in employers remote working will also encourage greater diversity.

Equally, hospitals and medical experts will look to connect in real-time with their patients to diagnose and treat disease at the first point of contact to improve patient care. Manufacturers will look to leverage robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and superfast connectivity to enable the remote management of production lines and to support the faster reconfiguration of factories.

For consumers, streaming services will continue to evolve into exciting new formats, such as augmented reality (AR), with major consumer electronics groups launching their own versions of AR glasses in the next few years. Similarly, gaming has moved further from the console and into the cloud and is constantly evolving as a community thanks to live events such as eSports.

5G networks are critical to driving economic recovery

Staying connected has become a defining feature of the modern economy and a significant trend of the 21st century. Therefore, 5G will prove fundamental to fulfilling the potential of digital connectivity, as in the above examples, and will help drive the economy after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Recovering after coronavirus will require disseminating vital information, connecting crucial services, leveraging big data and artificial intelligence (AI) as well as adopting new ways of working – and this all needs to be supported by ensuring stable network connectivity. Only then, can our communities, economies and countries recover.

The West Midlands is committed to playing a leading role in 5G and fibre connectivity

The West Midlands has long been a global leader when it comes to innovation. The Midlands not only paved the way through the industrial revolution but to this modern day has continued to explore and be at the forefront of new technologies. It has now emerged as one of the global leaders in the 5G revolution.

As a technology accelerator, West Midlands 5G has supported key telecoms workers. The Government reiterated that these highly-skilled engineers are part of a critical business sector and work to repair and maintain existing telecommunications networks and the acceleration of new infrastructure simply must go on.

This has ensured not only a 5G future, but the importance of reliable connectivity upon which so many are depending amidst this global pandemic. 5G’s low latency (ability to process high volumes of data in real-time), increased capacity (ability to support more devices at once) and speeds of up to 10 times faster than 4G, make it a critical technology for the enhancement of so many of our public services.

Upgrading our existing networks

Although the 5G roll-out is continuing where plans were already in place, there has rightfully been an increased focus by mobile network operators on managing 4G capacity throughout the current crisis. This is what has enabled so many of us to work from home, providing the necessary capabilities for video conferencing, remote server connections, and so on.

With the 5G roll-out in the UK still ongoing, most people continue to rely on 4G networks to provide the fast speeds required to keep them connected.

In fact, in the West Midlands – and in Birmingham in particular – the UK’s second city has moved from sixth-place to first-place when comparing aggregate median 4G download speeds in H2 2019. While this RootMetrics study doesn’t account for 5G speeds, the 5G upgrade work network operators have been undertaking has positively impacted this result.

Birmingham offers an aggregate median download speed of 29 Mbps, making it the fastest city in the UK. However, while we tend to associate large cities with fast speeds, the RootMetrics report also states that in the second half of 2019, Coventry stood out with faster speeds than those in all but four UK metropolitan areas – it even ranked faster than London. Encouragingly, residents in Coventry should experience strong speeds from all four mobile network operators.

How is the West Midlands driving innovation in connectivity?

It’s not just Birmingham and Coventry seeing the benefit of improved connectivity. West Midlands 5G has engaged with the seven local authorities in the region as part of its Infrastructure Accelerator project.

The project is accelerating the roll-out of 5G and fibre to help bring forward the faster speeds, lower latency and greater capacity of this new technology. Making access to public assets easier will help mobile network operators improve their network coverage where they need to. Ultimately, the region will see the social and economic benefits that 5G can bring off the back of that.

The team are working hard to bust barriers by facilitating collaboration between local authorities and the operators. This is removing obstacles and making the roll-out of 5G smoother, quicker and more affordable.

As part of the project, the team has developed a Connected Map. This tool has mapped out the region’s local authority assets suitable for mobile network infrastructure. Together with existing coverage plans from mobile network operators, West Midlands 5G has created a powerful tool to accelerate the deployment of 5G across the region and close existing 4G coverage gaps in the process.

This interactive tool is enabling local authorities and mobile network operators (as well as their partners MBNL and Cornerstone) to review their priorities and plan for the future together.

Paul Mountford, Head of Planning & Regeneration at Dudley Council, said: “From my perspective, the added value from WM5G to-date has been acting as a critical friend and providing access to specialised support where we have lacked expertise or capacity in dealing with the requests from mobile network operators for infrastructure upgrades.”

Heather Clarke, Digital Co-ordinator at City of Wolverhampton Council, added: “WM5G’s Infrastructure Accelerator team have provided us with a range of support, including workshops on key issues such as understanding the Electronic Communications Code and its implications, and facilitating our discussions with mobile network operators.”

Juliette Wallace, Business Planning and Property Director at MBNL, added: “Working with WM5G has been wholly positive for providing education, expertise and advise to councils in relation to the new Electronic Communications Code. WM5G has been instrumental in facilitating dialogue between operators and councils.”

Sean McHenry, National Planning and Community Manager at Cornerstone, added: “WM5G’s engagement has provided the opportunity to explain and outline the benefits of modern connectivity from an independent perspective. Local authorities now place more emphasis on the public benefits of 5G and connectivity, which supports our planning applications.”

The 5G roll-out aids 4G performance

As the 5G roll-out continues, current 4G speeds improve, this is largely because the operators are installing some of the very latest equipment delivering greater efficiency and performance. In addition, they are increasing the size of the connection between the site and the rest of the mobile network – for example a site may go from 1Gb fibre to 10Gb fibre – meaning there is less likelihood of congestion on this part of the network.

By supporting our key workers and continuing to accelerate the next generation of mobile technology, West Midlands 5G is playing its part in keeping the region connected. The outbreak of COVID-19 has only reinforced the criticality of this work further.

Over the coming months, West Midlands 5G will strengthen its focus on connectivity and drive for innovation by working with public and private sector organisations to and trial new 5G applications using its new 5G accelerators, known as 5PRING.

The 5PRING accelerators will reinforce the Midlands’ already unique leadership position when it comes to the acceleration of digital connectivity and provide a place where the regions many businesses can continue to innovate, grow and thrive through 5G.

Organisations looking to test, prove and scale new 5G services – or those who would benefit from an introduction to 5G technology – should register their interest with 5PRING: https://5pring.org/