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.