Scottish Daily Mail
British tech firms lead the way to 5G future
AT THE annual gathering of the telecoms and mobile industry in Barcelona this week, everyone was obsessed with 5G. But why is it important, and what does i t mean for British tech companies?
Simply speaking, it is the next generation of mobile network.
Two years ago EE, Britain’s largest phone firm, launched 4G – a mobile service that it claimed was comparable to home broadband in terms of speed for accessing the internet. The service replaced 3G (which in turn had replaced 2G and 1G), a network that offered some access to the internet but very limited capability to watch videos or download large files.
Industry leaders say 5G is much more than just another upgrade.
Hans Vestberg, the chief executive of network manufacturing goliath Ericsson, says it will bring about a fundamental change to the way that we live.
An increasing number of objects and items other than mobiles are connected to the internet, including cars.
Peel, one of the companies on display at Mobile World Congress, was showing off how lights in your home can be turned on and off from your mobile phone. In order to do that, the lightbulbs themselves require chips that link them to the net.
There is a growing use of the technology to link up medical devices, such as heart monitors or blood sugar sensors, so they can pass information back to your doctor. This is the beginning of a phenomenon that the industry has dubbed ‘the internet of things’.
The ambition is that everything, from factory machinery to street lights to the fridge in your kitchen, will be hooked up.
But all of these connected items require a network.
The current services, tailored to mobile phones, simply could not cope if asked to carry information from a plethora of domestic or industrial gadgets. One of the most popular items at the trade show – a Volvo car that can detect black ice and warn other drivers of it – would be entirely dependent on superfast internet being available on every single road.
Sir Hossein Yassaie, chief executive of Imagination Technologies, said the British chip designer was already involved in 5G projects.
He says the UK will be ahead because ‘the Government has taken steps already’.
In his Autumn Statement last year, George Osborne said that a tranche of airwaves would be auctioned off to mobile firms. Selling off the 700MHz of spectrum would benefit the economy by up to £1.3bn, the Chancellor said, as it will ‘support the growth in demand for next generation mobile services, through the rollout of 4G and preparation for 5G services’.
Chinese giant Huawei has already committed t o opening nine research facilities – including one at the University of Surrey in Guilford – as it prepares to spend £400m developing the technology needed for 5G.
Vodafone, BT and Samsung are also pouring money i nto the research at the University of Surrey, which has been touted as Britain’s leading 5G research centre.
Britain’s biggest tech firm ARM is expected, alongside Imagination Technologies, to benefit from an explosion in demand for its technology, as all of the new connected items require chips.
Ericsson boss Vestberg says that the network is required if ‘driverless cars’ being planned by Google are to take off. The car must be able to hook up to the internet in milliseconds ‘otherwise you won’t be able to steer and you’re going to have a problem,’ he says.
Ken Hu, chief executive of Huawei, said it is a ‘matter of life and death’. He explained a car using the 4G network to communicate would stop in 1.4metres in an emergency. With 5G, it could stop in just 2.8cm, he claimed.
In this sense, the speeds with which the car can recognise that it needs to slam on the brakes needs to keep pace with the human nervous system that human drivers rely on. A single glitch, or a split second delay, could lead to a pile up.
Nokia chief executive Rajeev Suri said: ‘5G only works on the premise of rock solid connectivity.’
The stakes therefore are very high – but enthusiasts say the prize could be a world of greater ease and better living standards.