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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Liam Fox as International Trade Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for International Trade.

Only Nixon, it is said, could have gone to China. Only a politician with the impeccable Commie-bashing credentials of the 37th President had the political capital necessary to strike a deal with the People’s Republic of China.

Theresa May’s great hope is that only Liam Fox, the newly-installed Secretary of State for International Trade, has the Euro-bashing credentials to break the news to the Brexiteers that a deal between a post-Leave United Kingdom and China might be somewhat harder to negotiate than Vote Leave suggested.

The biggest item on the agenda: striking a deal that allows Britain to stay in the single market. Elsewhere, Fox should use his political capital with the Conservative right to wait longer to sign deals than a Remainer would have to, to avoid the United Kingdom being caught in a series of bad deals. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.