Gee, Whizz! The real opportunities offered by the 5G pilot in the West Midlands conurbation

We learnt earlier this week that Government funding to the tune of £50m (with the possibility of a further £25m at a later stage) is coming to Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, to fund part of the 5G Testbed and Trials Programme.

The announcement by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport focuses on four sector case studies (remote clinical assessments, behaviour monitoring on public transport, and autonomous vehicles), evidently chosen for their relevance to public services and their resonance with popular themes and stories in the news.  The announcement is here

On the face of it £75m is a big number and promises opportunities for private and public sector organisations, across a range of sectors.  However, the pilot has regional scale, and inevitably only a select few organisations will have the opportunity to directly participate in the 5G trials to develop technology (and enjoy the revenue).  Central Government's initial contribution is just £25m (around 12% of the overall budget allocated by central Government to 5G), and it's a fraction of the £1bn allocated by central Government to next-generation digital infrastructure. 

So what's really in it for the West Midlands?  Is it just about getting profile for the West Midlands Combined Authority?  Perhaps, but I think there's also something in it for the whole technology supply sector in the West Midlands, and their customers.

The benefits of 5G are essentially speed and capacity: it is billed as being able to transmit more data per second, which translates to faster and more capable mobile data compared with 4G.  5G offers something for most sectors – here are a few examples:

  • Health Healthcare providers who have distributed workforces or work in large partnerings or supply chains.
  • Technology Developers and users of embedded devices, enterprise software and apps with data-heavy features.
  • Automotive and logistics Manufacturers of connected or autonomous vehicles, operators of public transport systems, warehouse/ distribution businesses, and their respective supply chains.
  • Retail and advertising Business that harvest data from devices to learn more about their customers and users.
  • Real estate Property owners that use sensors and systems to monitor and manage land and buildings remotely.
  • Education Schools and colleges that leverage lower cost, cloud-based IT resources.

The West Midlands Combined Authority's interest is presumably in encouraging the development  and use in the region of technology that leverages 5G. I envisage:

  • Technology users in the region finding new ways of using mobile technology to deliver new or improved services and outcomes.
  • Technology businesses and research institutions in the region developing new technology, products and services to meet the re-defined demands of users.
  • Preparation for 5G-enabled regional infrastructure, such as intelligent roads and autonomous transport.

The short pilot, with actually quite modest funding, is unlikely to encourage technology firms to flood in and put down roots in the West Midlands.  So are there already technology businesses in the region that can make use of 5G, and capitalise on the head-start that the pilot offers? 

The answer is a definite yes, and that is why the announcement is so exciting.  It reminds us that the West Midlands has an increasingly rounded and capable technology supply sector (and user base) for whom 4G is, and 5G will be, a powerful facilitator.  It also gives sector participants an opportunity to raise their profile – at precisely the time when, I think, they are showing signs of wanting more profile.

The region has an established and growing bedrock of digital technology businesses run by people who, initially, saw themselves as moving from the London and Thames valley technology sector.  Those people are increasingly seeing themselves and their businesses as being part of the London/ Thames valley technology scene, and starting to compete within it.  The distance from London to Birmingham is perceived to be shrinking, and not just because of the imminent arrival of HSBC's UK HQ in Birmingham, or the prospect of HS2 increasing rail traffic capacity. 

The region also benefits from a ring of leading universities who are pumping out technology-enabled creatives on the one hand, and cutting-edge digital research with national and international partners(on the other, and are actively engaging with industry.

West Midlands tech providers: Time to mobilise!

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