Is 5G the key to a truly digital society?

A panel of experts – including Vodafone UK, NatWest’s Boxed and Google – say asset tracking and optimising connected buildings and vehicles are some of the more encouraging 5G use cases, but we need better collaboration and storytelling to narrow the digital divide and create a truly digital society in the UK

5g Communications Tower With Man Using Mobile Phone

Nick Gliddon, Vodafone UK’s director of business, argues that 5G is crucial to help both communities and businesses make swift and wide-ranging progress. Earlier this year, Vodafone research calculated that having a best-in-class 5G network in the UK would deliver up to £5 billion a year in economic benefit by 2030. 

An additional study of 2,000 UK adults suggested Britons believe 5G can improve society more than AI. The survey found healthcare (31%), utilities like energy and water (21%), and railways (20%) were key sectors that will benefit most from 5G.

Empowering people is the beating heart of a digital society, and Gliddon says 5G can help this on five fronts. It will improve connectivity, video capabilities, business applications, immersive experiences, and digital-twin technology, which is a digital representation of a physical process, portrayed in a digital version of its environment.

As a digital society grows in the UK, there are also opportunities for businesses. “A truly digital society is one where individuals, platforms and utilities are seamlessly interconnected,” says Tom Bentley, head of growth at Boxed, NatWest’s banking-as-a-service platform. “Cloud and 5G technologies provide a better customer service experience where the fulfilment of product or utilities can be instant, compared with the existing physical processes of the past.” He adds that such service “fundamentally relies on quality data combined with strong interconnectivity”.

Ben Shimshon, co-founder and managing partner at Thinks, an insight and strategy consultancy, notes that some UK organisations – especially SMEs – are taking advantage of the opportunities opened up by better connectivity piecemeal, and often more slowly. “Some 99.4% of businesses in the UK have fewer than 50 employees, and three quarters of those are sole traders with no employees. A lot of them are doing predominantly offline things like scaffolding or running a shop,” he says. Many find the notion of a digital society “quite daunting”.

Clear business benefits

Part of the challenge is articulating the advantages of greater connectivity to time-pressed leaders of micro-businesses, not least because many are content with the status quo and incentives for digital adoption remain limited, says Bentley.

Still, those gaining digital access see clear benefits, Shimshon says, such as faster invoicing and payments to improve cash flow. Digital adoption happens gradually for many SMEs as new technologies like card readers are embraced, leading to incremental improvements across operations.

Matthew Evans, director for markets at the UK’s technology trade association techUK, argues that practical needs – like freeing up leisure time by streamlining admin – will resonate more with time-poor SME owners than abstract efficiency promises. “Think of that scaffolder who much prefers to watch his son playing football than doing his company accounts,” he says. “That needs to be the pitch: these digital tools will free up that time.”

Victoria Newton, chief product officer of Engine, Starling Bank’s software-as-a-service arm, agrees the focus should be on practically solving business problems rather than leading with technology. She highlights how Starling has transformed business banking by enabling round-the-clock digital financial services, through building a proprietary cloud-based banking infrastructure, Engine, from scratch. “Starling was able to do this, take our technology and imbed it within banks in countries starting that digital revolution themselves.”

Customer choice 

As society becomes increasingly digital, though, the group acknowledged organisations must put citizens first. For example, Newton believes customer choice is paramount – some may opt for online self-service, but others still want human contact through banks, branches or contact centres. Top-down measures to increase digital capabilities risk excluding the most digitally disenfranchised without affordable options, she adds.

Another barrier to progress, says British Chambers of Commerce director Faye Busby, is that “people naturally don’t like change”. She highlights research, published in collaboration with Xero at the start of the year, showing that 75% of businesses believe their “broadband and general connectivity is very reliable”, suggesting they don’t realise what more connectivity could achieve for them. They underestimate the potential of a digital society.

Again, 5G has the power to electrify a digital society, but only once more people realise the good work that is going on. Several examples demonstrate 5G networks unleashing transformative applications, and most have been made possible thanks to visionary partners.

Gliddon calls Coventry “the most advanced 5G city in the UK”, partly because the city council, who have collaborated with Vodafone for almost a decade, is so progressive. The council gained smart-city capabilities by providing planning assistance to deploy 5G antennas rapidly, improving traffic flow, air quality monitoring and municipal operations. Coventry is creating a smart energy grid to better manage local renewable power generation by building on these digital foundations.

Coventry University is also the first in the UK to successfully deploy a 5G Standalone network. The forward-thinking council mandated 5G labs at Coventry University to support next-generation teaching in subjects like healthcare and engineering. Students can now access immersive learning through technologies like virtual reality. 

For instance, healthcare students are using virtual reality and augmented reality to explore the human body like never before. Professors at the university use a headset and 5G allows them to access any part of the body during a lesson, making points and taking questions from students in real time, making the teaching experience much more flexible and interactive.

Elsewhere, for environmental services provider Veolia, 5G enables real-time asset tracking. Veolia’s head of digital strategy and innovations, Chris Burrows, outlines how sensors on the company’s recycling-collection trucks can ensure it takes 16.5 seconds – or fewer – to complete a bin empty, identify potholes, and build air-quality maps across cities. 

CCTV cameras on Veolia’s trucks also use edge computing to pinpoint potential collisions, analysing footage instantly. “It effectively gives you a threat-to-life score,” he says. This facilitates rapid accident responses while providing evidence against false claims. Burrows emphasises that realising these benefits requires a supportive company culture and employees willing to act on data insights.

Meanwhile, techUK’s Evans lists encouraging 5G deployments in areas like ports and hospitals to manage assets and workforces. “The NHS wastes £300 million a year on medicine, at least half of which is avoidable, and is down to fridges breaking down, or drugs being left outside for too long. Better asset tracking would change that.”

Evans says, though, that if 5G is going to be successful and become “the digital fabric in the digital society”, there must be large-scale rollouts targeting enterprise use cases.

Daniel Peach, head of digital acceleration programmes at Google, predicts that greater 5G adoption will spur many new business models and opportunities. “It might seem minor, but there are a lot of buildings we don’t have data for,” he says. “There is a use case of energy optimisation and moving beyond motion sensors. If you track that centrally, you can entirely shut off parts of the building when it’s not in use. There is so much scope for innovation around connected buildings and connected vehicles.”

Cut the jargon

To accelerate the move to a digital society, there are a number of barriers to overcome. Gliddon stresses the need for appropriate language to explain digital innovation in an engaging, sector-specific way. This chimes with Busby, who believes unclear terminology, such as “connectivity”, remains a barrier, with many unable to grasp its meaning.

The energy demands of an increasingly data-driven society must be addressed. For Burrows, “digital sobriety” is needed regarding endless data storage and transfer. Peach expects 5G’s carbon impact to fall, being more efficient than 3G or 4G.

Finally, significant investment is required for the digital society – nationwide 5G coverage comes at a cost. Currently, telecoms operators are largely being asked to fund its deployment alone and forecasts suggest there is a hole of £25-30 billion if the industry is to meet Government expectations. This is one of the reasons why Vodafone and Three have announced plans to merge. If approved – a merged company would have the necessary scale to invest in creating one of Europe’s most advanced 5G networks. Vodafone says it would invest £11 billion in the network over the next decade and take 5G Standalone to 99% of populated areas by 2034.

Ultimately, while the core network technology promises significant performance improvements, realising technological potential requires careful human and organisational transformation. Joined-up thinking and greater collaboration between telcos, academia, the public and private sector, and telling compelling stories that persuade businesses to embrace digital innovation is vital to unleashing 5G’s possibilities and building an inclusive and sustainable digital society.

Find out more about the ambitions of Vodafone UK and Three UK as a combined business here.