4G's so last year: why we need 5G, and now

We have a spectrum crunch on our hands, and technology is only just starting to deal with that.

By current trends, data traffic is expected to increase 1,000 fold by 2020, by which time there will be an estimated at least 50 billion Internet-capable devices. Our ever-growing love for mobile comms is a fast lane to "spectrum crunch" – we're just running out of radio space.

The electromagnetic spectrum of radiowaves is another of our finite resources, shared out between a hungry media still expanding its TV and radio platforms, all the mobile web-enabled devices, emergency services and the military. With such scarcity, Government control is needed to allocate elements of the spectrum. Of course, that also pretends an opportunity to make large sums from the private sector (£22.5bn from the 3G auction when the industry was at a peak of optimism in 2000, and still a further £3.5bn expected, and budgeted into the autumn statement, from the imminent 4G auction).

Spectrum crunch will basically mean a shortage of supply, leading to a widening gap between the technology "haves" and "have nots", smaller markets for businesses and restrictions on the development of wireless-enabled technologies, products and services. Instead of the great opening up of the web, mass participation and new commercial opportunities, we'll see a closing down.

This is why 5G is so important, even before 4G has taken off. Unlike its predecessors, 5G technology isn't about improving speed of data rates, it's about sustainability and making a global digital life a possibility. 5G is needed urgently as a new basis of an efficient, space-saving approach to the spectrum. It will also be the technology that helps minimise the energy requirements of web devices and network infrastructure – another issue as everyday life becomes increasingly mobile and digital.

Although the UK played an active role in the creation of 2G (GSM) cellular standards, we have increasingly fallen behind in the succeeding generations of 3G and 4G standards. 5G is a huge opportunity for the UK to regain a world leading position and to be at the heart of new business creation and product development around the technologies with rich applications. It's already starting to happen. The University of Surrey has been given the go-ahead to set up a 5G Innovation Centre, backed up by a total of £35m investment from a combination of the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund and a consortium of key mobile operators and infrastructure providers including Huawei, Samsung, Telefonica Europe, Fujitsu Laboratories Europe, Rohde & Schwarz and AIRCOM International.

So the 5G Innovation Centre will be a hub for the latest research and technologies, capable of attracting telecoms giants internationally to carry out their own R&D and the basis of a cluster for the involvement of all kinds of businesses from different sectors interested in getting a lead from taking advantage of 5G platforms: media firms, gaming, health, logistics etc. The Centre will live within a 5G testing environment (operating throughout the University campus and also into Guildford in order to offer a model of the different types of urban and non-urban spaces) for firms to try out new offerings on the latest network.

What matters now is that UK organisations are long-sighted enough to seize the opportunity and get involved. The major investment funds mean we have a window in which to set the pace for what may well be the the make or break phase in the history of mobile communications. We have a long history in the UK of quality research that doesn't lead to commercialisation by home firms but picked up overseas. And with every economy now looking for the next big thing, the new technologies and markets that will shore up deficits and be an engine of long-term growth, 5G has the potential to be a precious commodity of the coming years.

Mobile phone masts. Photograph: Getty Images

Professor Rahim Tafazolli is the Director of the Centre for Communications Systems Research at the University of Surrey

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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