Executives from Vodafone UK and ecosystem partners touted the potential for 5G as a transformational technology, as the operator officially opened its Digital Innovation Hub in MediaCityUK, Salford.

Speaking at the event yesterday (19 June), Anne Sheehan, business director at Vodafone UK (pictured, left), said: “We want people to start using the technology: using it in your business, using it to drive innovation and really challenge the limitations of today. Via the hub, we want to give access to 5G, but also access to technology such as IoT, high speed fibre and NB-IoT, and to really get companies from start-ups to more mature organisations working together and co-creating to get a really great sense of the power of 5G.”

In a statement, Vodafone said there are more than 100 start-up companies in MediaCityUK alone, alongside established players BBC North; Endemol Shine North; Ericsson; and ITV.

Jon Corner, CEO of The Landing, the facility hosting Vodafone’s hub, said: “MediaCityUK itself is a smart city, a living lab for 5G innovation. That is truly unique in the UK: it’s not just here in a bench test, not across a couple of floors, you can deploy in a real urban environment.”

It is open to companies beyond the media sector: “We’ve got an open door policy. They can come here if they are in retail or in finance or health, this is the place to come to work out if you can be 5G ready and what 5G can do for your business.”

In a panel session, Vodafone UK CTO Scott Petty (pictured below, right), said 5G is about “efficiency and reliability”.

“Efficiency, meaning we can support thousands more customers in a really dense location than we can today, like a train station, where capacity is really difficult to manage. 5G makes that much, much easier to do.”

On reliability, “5G is actually for the first time a properly intelligent network. It’s virtualised, it’s controllable in the way we deliver those services”.

“So we go from a world where mobile communications is pretty reliable to…where it is super reliable, and I think that will enable a really broad set of applications that nobody has thought about in healthcare, in autonomous vehicles, in enabling services that you quite frankly wouldn’t trust to run over the mobile network”.

Shafi Ahmed, chief medical officer and co-founder of Medical Realities (pictured above, left), highlighted the potential for 5G to make healthcare more affordable and accessible, democratising access to medical services.

“Healthcare is at the moment unaffordable. What’s consistent is that no government is spending more money. So we have to reimagine healthcare in a different way, making existing resources go much further. So for example, the doctor-patient relationship, the first point of contact in the next two-to-five years will not be a human being, it will be an AI chatbot, a deep machine learning algorithm, it will be a hologram, it will be an avatar.”

Availability of high speed, high quality connectivity, alongside other technology innovations around blockchain, electronic health records and AI will also change the way consultations take place and enable training to be streamlined and more accessible. “Education will change, because we can now scale-up education by using virtual reality and augmented reality, et cetera,” he said.

Tracey McGarrigan, CEO of communications agency Ansible and coordinator of the Women In Gaming event at the London Games Festival (pictured above, second right), also heralded the technology as revolutionary. “Certainly in the gaming industry, it’s where we are able to deliver that promise of real engagement with our customers. It’s a terrible truth that gamers get very, very bored of waiting for things to download. 5G is going to allow us to have instant play, instant access to games, and I think that is going to change the business.”

This also comes as major players including Google, Microsoft and Apple begin looking at streaming games propositions, alongside newcomers such as Hatch. “That is going to change not just how we deliver games to consumers but how we design games. I think certainly the business of streaming over the last ten years has been a little bit broken, it’s very, very expensive and it just doesn’t scale. What 5G is going to be able to do is allow us to make our devices part of the cloud,” McGarrigan said.

Mischa Dohler, professor in Wireless Communications at King’s College London (pictured above, second left), pointed out the significance of low latency in mobile networks. “The human vortex is geared towards 10 milliseconds engagement. So the moment I get the optical signal in and I process that within 10 milliseconds, I know that you are here. All the social fabric is built on these 10 milliseconds. And 5G is the first time we are able to actually come down in latency so, even though we are not physically together, we are giving this feeling of immediacy and togetherness which before we didn’t have.”

He highlighted how the evolution of network infrastructure is changing skill set requirements. “We are transiting from a world that was very purpose hardware and box driven, meaning if Vodafone wanted a new feature, they called up the vendors and ten years later they would come with a new box, to a world where everything is in software.”

With the UK “very good” at computer science, this leaves the country well placed, he argued.

Rural options
Petty (pictured, below) also flagged the importance of 5G in serving rural communities with services incluing remote health and education.

While the operator’s initial launch focus is on large cities, he noted pilots are also underway in remote areas, enabling the operator to “validate that it really does make a difference to the local economy, and hopefully create a demand-led model where other rural communities throughout the UK start saying ‘hey, I really want 5G in my village’. Rural is a really important part of the 5G ecosystem”.

Of course, serving rural communities, which have low population density and infrastructure deployment difficulties, will continue to provide a challenge for operators. But Petty said all four UK operators are working together to try to address such issues, developing a concept with the government for single rural networks.

“We’re trying to put a proposal together to say there’s a part of the country from 88 per cent geographic coverage to 95 per cent where there is nobody there, so it doesn’t make any sense to build base stations. We’ve come up with a way to build one mast that we share four ways, and if that happens then I think the 5G deployment will be even quicker.”