Opinion

Why Leeds can lead on 5G

Community, Opinion, Leeds ,

Jenny BrookfieldJenny Brookfield, February 5, 2018

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Leeds is leading the way on plans to pilot 5G – and the entrepreneur spearheading the move says he is keen to help other areas emulate the city’s success.

Adam Beaumont, founder of telecommunications operator aql, says he expects a decision within the next three to six months on whether the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has approved the city’s bid to pilot national trials of 5G.

Super speed in Leeds

Leeds confirmed its intention to trial the superfast technology in autumn when it detailed the potential it could have for the area. Beaumont says the support has been “overwhelming” since he built a connected innovation working group at Leeds University including private sector businesses, the LEP and Leeds City Council.

And, while it has taken time for the city to become a digital trailblazer, Beaumont says there is no reason other towns and cities could not follow in Leeds’ footsteps, and he is keen to assist.

“We don’t want to just stop with Leeds, we’re interested in working with other cities, particularly in the North, to build the infrastructure that Leeds already has,” he says. “That includes building city centre data centres that will allow the operators to share infrastructure and share capacity and start to allow other cities to go on the same digital journey that Leeds has been on.”

Driverless cars, an internet of things (IoT) scheme for the elderly and a project to improve air quality using sensors are among the ambitious plans the working group hopes will see the city selected by DCMS.

The New Standard

“5G is a new emerging standard and it’s not just about faster mobile broadband, it’s about encompassing legacy technology, encompassing new forms of connectivity and also embracing better engineered networks,” Beaumont says. “As we move to networks that need to carry more traffic we need to make sure that the routing of that data is more efficient, so we don’t want to be sending traffic up and down the country – it needs to be delivered as locally as possible.

“Research into 5G has shown that there’s a need for a centralised internet infrastructure in a city – we built that 10 years ago in Leeds, so we have a head start already.”

Beaumont’s internet career began 20 years ago when he founded aql, which provided Leeds with its first city centre data hub. The centre houses IX Leeds, co-founded by Beaumont, the only mutual, not-for-profit internet exchange outside the capital, allowing different operators to share infrastructure.

Twenty years on, aql offers mobile messaging, IP telephony, fibre and wireless leased lines, secure data centre hosting and machine to machine services for the IoT market. It hosts tens of millions of phone numbers and provides its services to banks and businesses in the retail, logistics, healthcare and education sectors. Its international client base includes startups and banks in San Francisco.

There’s no doubting that, with this already in place, Leeds is well placed to lead the way, but potential alone wasn’t enough and the working group has spent since last July coming up with uses it hopes will cement Leeds as a digital leader.

dr adam beaumont in a meeting

Supporting Smart Cities

“It’s ok saying we need 5G but we needed to look at the use cases that it can support,” Beaumont says.

“There’s an aspiration to provide faster mobile connectivity for commuters and for citizens to embrace the growing IoT market, but most excitingly for me, and what we feel is the most applicable use of the technology, is in supporting smart cities and, particularly, the implementation of autonomous vehicles.”

As well as driverless cars, this includes anything that would work in an autonomous fashion, like delivery robots, public safety drones and other forms of transport. While it could be argued that they would work from their own on-board instructions, where 5G would come in is making it possible for the vehicles to interact with each other, Beaumont explains. This would cut down on congestion, allow vehicles to adjust speeds accordingly based on how much other traffic is on the roads and link to traffic signals and other safety technology.

Then there would be the ability to add layers of ‘trust technology’, allowing a connection to an autonomous vehicle to ensure it is doing what it is supposed to.

“If the vehicles didn’t communicate with each other, we’d end up with smart vehicles in a smart traffic jam,” Beaumont says. “A driverless car would use about four terabytes of data a day so we need to make sure we have the infrastructure to support this. If two cars want to share the same bit of road we need fast decision-making, which comes from routing the data into a centralised hub and back out of it to ensure the traffic flows quicker.”

5G for all

Other projects include introducing 5G capability along the TransPennine rail route between Leeds and Manchester, strengthening communications between the two, providing better Wi-Fi for rail users and allowing data to be relayed to analysts to better understand the maintenance cycle of vehicles. It would also be a cost-effective way of connecting even more IoT devices as they become more used around the home. Biometric and kinetic sensors around the home and as wearable devices would allow health conditions to be monitored in the elderly and vulnerable, and projects such as this would require even better connectivity.

The working group has also come up with other ideas around smart homes and smart cities, while it is predicted sensors could be used to measure air quality around Leeds to show where pollution occurs and how to solve it, for example.

2018 should be Leeds’ year and Beaumont and the group are working with the government on how the trial should progress. “The first round of DCMS funding we felt wasn’t at the scale of our aspirations so we’re responding to a call for reviews to express our capabilities and what we think we could do and how we think the network infrastructure should work,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll know within the next three to six months whether we’ve been successful.”

Then there’s the potential for other cities to follow suit. It isn’t a case of Leeds leaving everyone else behind but being used as an example to aspire to. “It’s taken ten years to get Leeds to where it is now, where we have a high capacity hub in the centre with every single UK operator on board,” he says.

“Other cities don’t have that but we’re keen to work with other city stakeholders to make that happen. We’d love to work across the UK and we have a passion for supporting the North, but we do need other areas to understand that it will take time to bring them up to where Leeds is currently. It’s a journey we need to start now because the sooner we start, the sooner we get there.”