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How connectivity can transform communities

Paul Coffey arrived as the new CEO of The Scotland 5G Centre in May, but his experience in the telecoms industry goes back 25 years.

Among the first intake of graduates at Orange back in 1995, he spent nearly 20 years working for the company (now called EE), with his last six years spent in a strategic development role. And while his new role has meant a move to Scotland, his background has obviously helped prepare him for some of the challenges facing connectivity north of the border.

“I was involved in a lot of exciting projects at EE and they lit something within me”, he told Holyrood. “For example, in Cornwall, we worked on getting people connected. We launched a 4G trial network, and a lot of the issues were the same ones we are talking about now in respect of Scotland – you need to be able to connect people, regardless of where they are. It’s remote connectivity for schooling, for farming, for agriculture, and this work was back in 2012, so it is slightly disappointing that, eight years on, we’re still talking about some of the same challenges.”

This seems ideal preparation for his role at the Scotland 5G Centre, which was established in October 2019 with Scottish Government funding, to accelerate the deployment and adoption of 5G and realise its economic and societal potential for Scotland. The Centre will play an integral role in delivering the Scottish Government’s 5G: strategy for Scotland, which sets out ambitions to establish Scotland as a forward-looking digital nation.

And clearly those potential benefits are huge, with a study by Deloitte, released last year, projecting that significant changes to wireless technologies in Scotland, including revolutionary 5G networks, could increase GDP by more than £17bn – equivalent to 8.3 per cent of the country’s total economic output – and create an additional 160,000 new jobs by 2035. A more recent Vodafone report came to similar conclusions.

But while the opportunities for Scotland are well known, so too are the challenges, with complaints over the lack of rural connectivity a common refrain in parliament. Communities have long expressed concern over young people being forced to move to cities in order to find work or create new businesses. So, what can the Scotland 5G Centre do to help?

Coffey said: “You can’t underestimate the importance of basic connectivity. On the back of COVID-19 we need to look at economic recovery, and in remote communities, where people perhaps feel isolated, without that support it is very difficult. We need to find a means to get people connected and keep them connected. 5G commercial networks will take time to roll out, and current initiatives such as the Single Rural Network programme launched this year, which we are supporting, will take some time to get up to speed. We, therefore, also need to look at new initiatives like private networks. The traditional Mobile Network Operator (MNO) business model is to provide ubiquitous coverage over large geographical areas, but now that’s perhaps not so important. With the advances in technology it’s now easier to deploy 4G or 5G small networks into communities and light up that particular area.

“5G is fundamentally different to 4G, 3G or 2G. Up until now the commercial model for mobile has been largely led as a consumer offering by mobile operators. But with 5G it is a whole different eco-system. It’s like a jigsaw, the mobile operators have a role to play, but we need to bring in other partners – SMEs, academics, infrastructure providers, funders, public sector – to make the bigger picture and achieve some of the transformational outcomes.

“The Scotland 5G Centre is here to provide a national focus to the design, development and deployment of 5G enabled solutions. We need to demonstrate to operators the demand is here and demonstrate the business case beyond Glasgow and Edinburgh in order for them to say: ‘we will invest in Scotland’.

“In Scotland we need to get ahead and excite people and businesses in every sector. Digital transformation can have a significant impact on the way we live and work, particularly in areas such as health, manufacturing and tourism. It will increase productivity and create a lot of cost efficiencies for a lot of businesses, both in rural settings for the likes of forestry, fishing and agriculture, and in urban areas through the introduction of ‘smart’ infrastructure.

“There are a number of exciting uses already being explored on our doorstep, drawing on expertise from academic institutions, industry and the public sector. In Dundee, for example, a 5G testbed and public Wi-Fi network is being installed to help deliver the council’s ambition of becoming a ‘smart city’, while in Inverness, the Darwin project involving the European Space Agency is gearing up for trials of next generation 5G and satellite communications to support autonomous vehicles. We are currently supporting a project with Heriot-Watt University where partners are developing a ‘digital twin’, or virtual simulation of the energy system on Orkney, to inspire users and businesses to get involved with future developments.

“We’re also hoping to stimulate demand through a series of investment hubs across the country. Some will be in towns and cities, but we really need to broaden it out to the wider rural communities in Scotland. We need to raise awareness of 5G at a local level and give people the capability to come in and touch, feel and play with 5G services.”

“An essential step is showing entrepreneurs what 5G can do for their business. The Scotland 5G Centre and its partners can work with them and give them a support network to accelerate and scale their business using real-world 5G networks that we deploy in each of these hubs. That will also enable us to get the MNOs involved, and say ‘look, this is what we are doing across Scotland, these are the businesses we are currently engaging with, and accelerating to support real-world 5G use cases’.  Demonstrating a real demand for these services, to justify accelerated rollout by the MNOs.   We also need to encourage new technology and deployment models such as OpenRAN that offer the potential to transform the way mobile networks are built. These steps are critical to Scotland where the cost of deploying in rural areas has been a barrier.  I’m confident through this strategy of supply and demand we can accelerate deployment and stimulate the economy for 5G in Scotland, which is what I am really passionate about.”

These are the short-term plans, but in the long-term Coffey wants to go further, arguing the hubs and the development of 5G will pave the way for what is known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, or Industry 4.0. What would that mean?

“The fourth industrial revolution will change everything we do and the Scotland 5G Centre is already working with the University of Strathclyde and the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) to develop a private 5G network that can support advanced manufacturing technologies. It is hard for people to visualise, even in the technology community, but it touches everything – from a working environment to a social environment.”

Meanwhile, there is no escaping the feeling that COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdown has changed everything, while further driving home the importance of connectivity. But to what extent are the changes we have seen long-term? Will new working patterns remain, or is this all temporary? And what will it mean for the Centre’s mission?

“I don’t think we are going to be returning, probably ever, to where we were”, Coffey said. “The pandemic has changed everything we do, but it has also accelerated a lot of what we were starting to do. It has forced people to adopt new technology, it has demonstrated that we can do things differently, we can go on Skype, we can run businesses remotely, and that has been fantastic. It has forced society to do things differently. There will be some normalisation but we will not return to how we did things previously. That presents a great opportunity to me. We need to invest and accelerate the investment in telecoms in the right way and in the right places to ensure we can support our enterprises, our businesses and our people to enable them to adapt and feel supported in this new normal.”

He added: “Economic and societal recovery will take some time, but we need to deploy infrastructure in the right places quickly. Putting infrastructure in the ground is expensive, and it takes a long time, so we need to do that now, and get it right. My prediction is that 2025 is when we will see 5G really take off – that means we have four years or so to really plan the infrastructure in the right way and get connectivity to rural areas, not just for connectivity’s sake but so people and businesses can take advantage of 5G too.

“Collaboration will be fundamental to much of what we want to achieve and one of the Scotland 5G Centre’s main aims is to provide a platform for engagement between all involved – acting as a national interface between the public sector, business community and academic experts.”

Source: Holyrood

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