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 Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.