If the pandemic has served to prove anything in business, it’s that digitisation and connectivity are the here and now. The Covid crisis has accelerated digital adoption by seven years, according to a global survey of executives by McKinsey.
The most obvious next step in that process is the installation of the UK’s fifth-generation mobile phone network, 5G. Despite the government’s decision to veto the use of Huawei equipment, which has delayed the national roll-out, now is still the right time for businesses to prepare for it, according to many experts. But where to start?
The roll-out schedule
In mid-2019, the UK became one of the first nations to start rolling out a public 5G network, focusing initially on towns and cities. About 10% of the country’s total area has been covered so far. The government has set a target of removing all Huawei technology by the end of 2027.
Robert Franks is managing director of West Midlands 5G, which is part of the government’s test programme. He believes that, while the Huawei decision has been a setback, public 5G network coverage could reach critical mass in as little as two years’ time, although the roll-out may take far longer in rural areas.
Franks notes that 5G will be made available in a series of releases, each offering different capabilities. “Although some advanced features can be accessed today, depending on the type of benefits required, a company may prefer to wait until those further releases,” he says.
Who should oversee a firm’s 5G adoption
Any business transformation needs someone to lead it. While the CIO would normally take charge of a tech-based project, it’s important to think beyond those in charge of IT infrastructure, because adopting 5G will enable a business to develop new goods and services. So says Frederic Huet, partner at telecoms consultancy Altman Solon.
“The connectivity that 5G provides is clearly linked to product development, as well as the supply chain. Therefore, avoid silos and embrace collaboration across departments,” he advises.
Huet stresses how important it is not to think of 5G in isolation. Many opportunities lie in its combination with technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data analytics and the internet of things.
Creating a 5G strategy
It’s vital to understand 5G’s capabilities and possible use cases before developing a detailed business strategy based on these, says Ian Bouquet-Taylor, operations director at AE Aerospace, who urges firms to “really blooming think before you start”.
His company is working with West Midlands 5G, Ericsson and BT to implement three 5G use cases aimed at increasing operational efficiency, creating new revenue streams and improving both cash flow and working capital. These projects are part of a plan to double AE Aerospace’s turnover in the next three years.
The firm had a series of conversations over two months about what 5G could enable it to do that Wi-Fi couldn’t, Bouquet-Taylor recalls.
“This is important, because we are building a private 5G network and investing in sensors, servers and other technologies, all of which is expensive for an SME,” he says. “We therefore need to know what the return on investment will be.”
Once it has a clear plan in place, a company would be well advised to use one of the government-backed 5G testbeds, says Franks. “This will provide a practical understanding of what the technology can do, and what’s involved in implementing and running it, before you have to commit large amounts of money.”
Bouquet-Taylor agrees. “Start small, test it to ensure that it works, then expand,” he advises. For instance, AE Aerospace is trialling one new 5G application on five of the 19 machines on its factory floor. This enables it to run digital and manual systems in parallel, so that not all machines would be affected if something were to go wrong.
Finding the right 5G partners
Companies next need to think about sourcing the technology and consider whether to use a public or private 5G network, advises Huet.
“This will depend on the evolving needs of the business,” he says. “Ask yourself: do we need broader coverage or something more localised? And would it make sense with regard to the price per megabyte or connection for us to have a private network? For nearly all companies, it’s most likely to be about securing a good contract with a network operator.”
A firm might choose to start with the public network for trials and then move to a private network if that makes financial sense, Huet suggests.
Anthony Karydis is the founder and CEO of Mativision, which is working with the government testbed programme to make its immersive content platforms 5G ready. He believes that using a public network presents a significant risk for businesses, including his.
For the 5G Festival, a virtual live music event planned for early 2022, Mativision will be connecting artists across the country. “This will rely totally on the availability of 5G coverage in each artist’s house. Without this, many applications won’t work,” he says.
There’s also the question of whether to opt for a managed service provider or not. “The former offers simplicity, as there is a single partner responsible for providing the entire service,” Franks explains. “Doing it independently would give you more control and customisation, but your capabilities would need to be high.”
It’s unlikely that many organisations will have all the skills they need in-house, particularly in the short term, according to Paul Beastall, technology strategy director at Cambridge Consultants.
“We have a need for more skills in the industry,” he says. “This is a technical growth area.”
Beware of the common 5G pitfalls
While 5G is an exciting technology that holds much promise, it’s important to cut through the hype, Beastall warns.
“My appeal is always for people to be application-driven, rather than chasing a technology just because it’s new,” he says. “Testbeds are a good way to connect with both independent experts and people using the technology to find out more about what it can do for your business.”
It’s also important to manage employees’ expectations and invest in training them, Franks says. He learnt this after West Midlands 5G, working with BT and the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, ran a “connected ambulance” trial that enabled paramedics to perform remote ultrasound scans over the 5G network. One of the participants commented that, unless the technology was incorporated in the paramedics’ training, it would be impossible for them to use it.
“It’s crucial that leaders think about the change management and process re-engineering that’s needed, particularly when humans are involved,” Franks stresses.
To this end, AE Aerospace will be working with Aston University next year on a programme designed to transform both processes and behaviour, according to Bouquet-Taylor, who says that the 5G project was his sole focus for two months.
“This can be all-consuming, so you will need time and technical support,” he stresses. “This is not the same as 4G. It’s not like opening a box and plugging something in.”