Viewpoint: To 5G or Not to 5G?

There was a lot of positive reaction to the Government’s announcement in the budget that it would invest in digital tech. In his Budget speech, Chancellor Philip Hammond pledged £270m to put the UK “at the forefront” of disruptive technologies such as robotics and driverless cars. He also announced £16m to create a 5G hub to trial the next-generation mobile platform.

Whenever 5G is talked about, it tends to be in terms of things like much faster mobile video downloads, driverless cars and fixed wireless high-speed broadband to the home. And these are all, indeed, things we should look forward to once 5G becomes a reality some time after 2020.

But out of all the reaction winging its way into my inbox, the comment that caught my eye came from Dan Adams, lead UK partner for telecommunications at Deloitte, who said: “In the near-term 5G will support narrow-band IOT, a technology that can communicate with buried monitors for up to 10 years. This enables utilities to monitor flow in pipes, reducing the chance of burst water mains, potentially saving the economy millions per year in delays and repairs.”

Because from what I can gather, a lot of the really clever stuff that a faster, more reliable cellular network can enable is exactly this sort of mundane stuff that most people neither know or care about. Local authorities and utility companies stand to save millions from enabling dumb devices like litter bins and water pipes to communicate back to base and let the people who manage them know that they need attention. Or that they don’t, and can be safely ignored for the time being.

But before popping the champagne corks, however, it’s perhaps worth considering the sums involved. That £270m for disruptive technologies looks pretty paltry compared to the $4bn (£3.3bn) committed to research into self-driving cars by the US Department of Transportation under President Obama. And while the University of Surrey, a world-renowned centre of excellence for research into 5G technologies, will be hoping it seems some if not all of that £16m, it may also be asking itself just how far £16m will go in today’s money.

The fact is that artificial intelligence, robotics, driverless cars, self-monitoring devices, mHealth, smart cities and all the other stuff that 5G will help power are set to fundamentally change the way we operate as a society for the better. Britain has an opportunity to be at the forefront of this revolution, but many will feel that the sums pledged in the budget don’t really signal much of an intention to do so.