West Midlands bags UK 5G test-bed prize

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has been selected as the region for the UK’s first multi-city 5G test bed with trials set to kick-off next year.

The Urban Connected Communities Project will make use of a £25 million investment from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, as well as £25 million from regional partners, trialling new 5G applications and services at scale. A further £25 million could be made available to the initiative in the future, with Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton the three primary locations for the trials.

“5G has the potential to dramatically transform the way we go about our daily lives, and we want the citizens of the UK to be amongst the first to experience all the opportunities and benefits this new technology will bring,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “The West Midlands Testbed, which is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, will be instrumental in helping us realise this ambition.”

The West Midlands Combined Authorities bid has an initial focus on the health, construction and automotive sectors, with its overarching ambition to help drive economic growth. One of the consistent messages from the government over the last few years has been the ambition to spread the wealth more evenly throughout the UK using 5G as a catalyst. The West Midlands is one region which has embraced this concept, aiming to establish a global tech hub for autonomous and electric vehicles and components through 5G benefits.

“This announcement is game-changing for the West Midlands economy,” said Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands. “This will be the backbone of our future economy and society.

“The potential of this technology is endless  – and we will enjoy the benefits first. From monitoring the health of babies and the elderly, to the way out people are linked to the economy of the future, the way companies do business, the way we deliver public services, the experience of travellers on public transport and the way we deliver City of Culture and the Commonwealth Games – everything can be made better thanks to the power of this technology.”

The Midlands has already been carving a name for itself in the digital economy with Coventry one of the UK hubs for autonomous vehicles. Alongside Milton Keynes, Coventry is one of the main hubs for UK Autodrive, the largest of three separate government-backed consortia to test autonomous vehicles. As part of the initiative, Jaguar Land Rover and Tata Motors European Technical Centre trialled the technology in Coventry city centre during November 2017, the first such trials on the open road in the UK. Some of the features being trialled in this initiative included Intersection Priority Management, Green Light Optimal Speed Advisory, Collaborative Parking and Intersection Collision Warning.

Moving forward, Jaguar Land Rover will continue to be an active partner of the region as part of the driverless push, while health care will also be taken into the digital economy with ‘connected ambulances’. Paramedic crews at an incident could access specialist advice at the scene through video conferencing with consultants or other clinical specialists, while streaming of patient data from ambulance en route to hospital could help inform the immediate care patients receive on arrival.

Other initiatives include the development of intelligent CCTV, with AI monitoring the feed and able to identify potential incidents. Police Officers can be more efficiently directed to incidents, while the AI could provide the opportunity for far greater coverage than is possible at present with human operatives.

While sceptics might have assumed the government promises of investments in digital infrastructure was nothing but hot air, it has been much more generous over the last couple of weeks. Aside from this announcement, the UK Government also released an additional £95 million to the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund to close the digital divide. Perhaps the bank accounts are starting to creak open.

A ticket to ride is just a Whim away

The subscription based mobile app Whim aims to replace car ownership. It is getting closer to that aim but is not quite there yet.

The app, and the Finnish startup behind it, MaaS Global (standing for “Mobility as a Service”), drew broader attention outside of Finland when Whim won the European Startup Prize for Mobility earlier this year. The concept is to consolidate journey planner, ride booking, and payment of customers’ travels on public transport (bus, metro, tram, and local train), bike hire, car sharing, car rental, and taxi rides, all to one mobile app. When the user selects the starting and ending points and the time of travel, the app will plan the optimum trip combining all means of transport available.

It offers subscribers different payment options. Cautious users may choose the pay per ride option, to test out the app. In Helsinki, a basic tier of €49 per month will give users unlimited access to all local public transport, plus bike hires, at a price level slightly lower than the official monthly travel card (€54.70, without access to bike hires). The user then can choose “pay-as-you-go” if she needs to add taxi rides and other services. An all-inclusive package of €499 will also cover a certain mileage of taxi ride, car rental, and car sharing.

Helsinki set itself a target to rid all cars from the city centre by 2050. Whim is moving in the right direction. In monetary terms, the €499 monthly package is already more economical than the total cost of owning a car, to consider the annual depreciation, insurance, tax, parking, fuel, maintenance, and, unique to countries in the far north, winter and summer tyres. Helsinki also has an advantage to make the app more useful: the buses almost always run on time, to the minute. This will become less of a concern for busier cities with more traffic when connected vehicles supported by IoT come to the streets, especially when 5G becomes more available.

MaaS Global has raised funds from private investors, the biggest being Toyota and the Japanese insurance company Aioi Nissay Dowa, which combined have invested over €10 million. Whim is now operational in Finland’s capital area, the four-city cluster including Helsinki, and has recently expanded to Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city. More cities on its map or been explored include Seoul, Toronto, Antwerp, Vienna, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Miami, etc.

However if a consumer should make the decision to sell his car and sign on services like Whim, monetary savings would not be his only consideration. He should not make too much sacrifice in convenience owning a car would have brought him. It is on this point that Whim still falls short, largely due to two main factors.

One is temporary and easier to fix. Helsinki’s bike-sharing is still dock-based. They will not be easily integrated into Whim planning if there is not a station near a user or along the route she is travelling. Introduction of dockless bikes will alleviate this problem, like the one we have seen in Manchester, supplied by the Chinese venture Mobike.

The other is generic and more difficult to fix: the availability of transport at the right place at the right time. Just imagine 20,000 people coming out of a concert at the O2 Arena after midnight, and the tube has stopped. Hardly any car-sharing apps could help take these people home quick enough.

There are also special cases when owning a car would be easier. For example a group of friends decide to transport their bicycles to the countryside for a ride. They would need a couple of cars fixed with the gear to transport bikes to be available at a specific location at a specific time.

The app, and the concept, is clearly running on consumer trend to move from ownership to access, as demonstrated in streaming music and video overtaking download and disc purchase. But, as was commented in a feature done recently by the BBC’s technology reporter Dave Lee, when subscriptions become the essence of being, we would be left with nothing if we could no longer afford the subscription, or the service we subscribe to ceases to operate. It is the psychological hesitation that may prevent us from giving up ownership entirely, cars or something else.