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

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.