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As funding dries up for private 5G trials, is there a business case?

"As gov't funding for these projects comes to an end, most of the trials are wrapping up..."

“The telecoms industry speaks in an arcane language that nobody else understands. So there's a real translational point about how to get the manufacturing or health or transport to really appreciate the benefits pf advanced connectivity, in a language that they can understand.” So says Bob Driver, head of UK5G, talking to The Stack about the UK’s 5G Testbeds and Trials (5GTT) programme, which is now winding down after five years of work.

Across 50 projects, involving more than 200 organisations, 5GTT has aimed to explore the possible applications for 5G. And last week the UK5G Showcase in Birmingham brought these projects together – for many, the first physical gathering of the programme – to draw some conclusions. Those conclusions have been largely positive: almost all of the projects have largely succeeded, and even where they’ve not, there have been useful lessons to learn. The breadth and scope of the 5GTT projects is impressive – as Driver says, to have a programme encompassing both health and social care in Liverpool and the construction of a new BAE military aircraft is mind-blowing. On the other hand, as Driver also tells us at the UK5G Showcase event: “There's still a job to do to make sure that those proof points get translated into real business and into adoption within those verticals.”

Clear use cases for industrial 5G

Ericsson 5G radios being installed. Credit: Ericsson.

The adoption point is crucial. As the matched government funding for these projects comes to an end, most of the trials are wrapping up – their 5G equipment will be taken down, testing set-ups dismantled. Because as of now, private 5G isn’t ready for widespread adoption when it comes to many use-cases.

For some areas such as manufacturing or logistics, the delta is relatively small – and indeed, for projects such as the Port of Felixstowe, they’re just getting started on even more ambitious 5G adoption plans.

Industrial use-cases have seen issues with equipment cost and availability, but with enough flexibility private 5G networks can be put to work now. And with costs falling and choice growing – notwithstanding global semiconductor and supply chain issues – wider adoption in these sectors seems to be only a matter of time.

There are still plenty of details to work out, from uplink speeds, to equipment provisioning and configuration, to n77 spectrum allocation, all discussed at the UK5G Showcase. Many of these are a function of mobile network operators and their providers being used to huge consumer-focused deployments, not a project covering a single small site for industrial applications. Vendors are stepping up, however: One sign of the potential for private 5G in these verticals is AWS’s move to test 5G-as-a-service. Amazon’s cloud arm is currently trialling 5GaaS in the US, where customers would order a number of base stations, and pay a monthly fee. As of now this is not a commercial trial, and there’s no timeline for a rollout in the UK – but it is coming.

“From a benefits realisation perspective, if everything that we've constructed today was available commercially off the shelf, it would deliver a return on investment in less than three months to a manufacturing facility such as Nissan, and would generate £20m-30m of productivity savings a year,” Richard Barrington, head of business development at Perform Green, part of the 5G CAL project with Nissan in Sunderland, said in a session at the showcase.

'No silver bullet' for rural 5G

When it comes to other UK5G projects such as rural connectivity and health and social care, the situation is different. Projects such as Liverpool’s 5G network to enable better care of people who are unable to leave the house, or Dorset’s push to provide connectivity for rural populations do not have an overt financial return on investment.

In this context, the phrase of the moment at the conference was “stackable use cases” – collecting a number of different applications for a 5G network together, to build a business case. Gary Littledyke, project manager at the multi-award-winning 5G RuralDorset testbed, was the first to use the phrase at the event.

“There's no one silver bullet when it comes to use cases for 5G that's going to encourage and motivate operators to roll out infrastructure in very rural areas,” said Littledyke in a session.

In an answer to a question on stackable use cases, he said the 5GTT programme participants had done fantastic work. “But it feels to me like our work isn't done yet. We've given some great examples of what you can achieve in certain domains. But we need to bring that all together.”

Littledyke talked about the potential to scale what the 5GTT projects have achieved at a national level, and the need to catalogue all the potential applications for 5G networks.

“I talked a little bit tongue in cheek about a very big Excel spreadsheet, but it really does come down to that; for those domains, and each of the use cases – show me the money. Because until we see the pennies and the pounds, we won't be able to show the way to actually make it sustainable commercially.”

UK needs telecoms resilience

The 5GTT programme is ending in a very different world from when it started, according to Driver: “Not only did we have COVID, but there's also been a shift in geopolitical shift, if you like in the way that the telecom industry is being viewed by government.

“And I think there's been more of an understanding on how critical it is. It's a critical part of national infrastructure and how important it is to make sure that that critical infrastructure is secure and resilient.”

Part of that resilience is in supply chains for network equipment; at the start of the programme, Huawei were on UK5G’s advisory board – as Driver notes, they are not any more.

“There's a whole shift in emphasis now from the government towards diversification and OpenRAN. There's also a huge amount of emphasis on the development of a more indigenous supply chain, and making sure that there's more engagement and capability within the UK,” adds Driver.

The UK5G Showcase coincided with the government’s announcement of a new UK Telecoms Innovation Network, which looks to be the next stage of the UK5G Innovation Network. But as the focus moves on from 5G, there’s plenty of opportunity left to explore – and plenty of work to do.

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