National and Devolved Politics

10.06.19

Evaluating 5G, unapologetically

Source: PSE June/July 2019

Martin Ferguson, director of policy and research at Socitm, discusses the potential of 5G in the public sector, and the need to properly assess the risks.

Let’s face it. There’s something quintessentially British about apologising. Indeed, a 2016 YouGov survey revealed that, for every 10 times an American citizen said sorry, British people have – meekly or irritably – uttered the word 15 times.

Such is our penchant for hanging our heads contritely that, in Jurassic times, bowler-wearing British stegosaurs, ankylosaurs, ornithopods and gigantic sauropods probably would have gingerly apologised as the asteroid crashed into them on their daily commute.

But should Britain be apologetic about its position in the global race to roll out 5G? More specifically, should the public sector be sorry about its stance on deploying the next generation of mobile infrastructure?

A recent study, conducted by Mobile UK, found that less than a third of councils’ Local Plans refer to mobile connectivity while more than half (65%) don’t have a councillor with specific responsibility for digital issues.

With the GSM Association predicting 5G will generate up to £164bn by 2030, why aren’t councils more proactively supporting the rollout? Is the public sector responsible for the UK lagging behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to 5G? In short, does it have anything to say sorry for?

Quite simply, it does not. Everyone knows the UK is lagging-behind internationally on digital and IT infrastructure. Digital leaders in the public sector are well-aware 5G won’t fix this. In fact, we know it may well detract from sorting out 2, 3 and 4G blackspots. The UK Government has promised to invest up to £1.1bn into developing 5G and full fibre. The UK fund is dwarfed, however, when compared to Germany’s €100bn investment in fibre and 5G.

Furthermore, public services have some unique considerations – distinct from the private sector - and must focus on inclusivity, not just high-tech leading-edge possibilities.

The rollout of 5G has become a hot political topic, which is a shame because technology needs managing. There are risks with 5G and over-enthusiasm from tech pundits means people aren’t considering these enough. The public sector is also subject to different budgetary constraints. It needs to take the time to consider, carefully, factors such as cost, value, risk equation and – importantly - who goes first.

All new tech comes with downsides that need consideration by governments, especially in terms of standards and regulation, and that takes time and thought. However, none of this means the public sector is cynically dragging its feet. In fact, our members are leading the way in evaluating the possibilities engendered by 5G and we’re ahead of the game in examining the positive outcomes 5G can create for citizens.

As ever, Socitm’s focus is how digital strategy and innovation impacts positively on the lives of service users. We believe that the most positive outcomes can only be achieved through sharing excellence, collaboration and discussion. Therefore, our members have been discussing and brainstorming the implications of 5G for the public sector for some time.

This conversation has raised a number of points which, while needing a good deal more discussion, are exciting prospects for us, our members and the people we serve.

5G will allow communities to access complex data files such as video from public services that today would just be too slow or poor quality. This could radically streamline the way we communicate, massively increasing inclusivity and reducing social isolation through the use of ‘warm’ media.

It will allow the adoption of complex linkages across data sets, such as calls embedded in video, IoT and AI connections etc. Health and social care could gain massively because of the nature of potential applications.

In addition, there is huge potential for risk management and civil protection, such as democracy, natural disasters, malicious attacks and crime in general. The rollout of 5G will also bring new opportunities for smart place innovations. Tremendous possibilities are created for 5G to be utilised in rural areas, reducing isolation and providing services to those who might otherwise be deterred by inaccessibility.

The public sector knows 5G will provide more than previous mobile technology generations have done. In supporting connectivity between things as well as people, enabling the delivery of more data more reliably and prompting faster interaction, 5G has the potential to help tackle some of the biggest challenges cities and rural areas face.

However, we need to stay focussed on what 5G can deliver for people rather than being blinded by the hype. To do this, public sector digital leaders need to carry on the conversation about how to realise the benefits. We do so unapologetically.

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