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UK 5G Ecosystem Mapping

Posted 21 Nov 2018

Making sense of the 5G ecosystem

As technology evolves and continues to develop, how can we best understand 5G and the ecosystem? When and how will it change our daily lives and world? What needs to happen and who is making it a reality?

Within industry these questions are hot topics for 5G and its capabilities, especially in the short-term, being over-hyped. But if we’re to understand better what’s actually happening in this field, we need to first understand the best place to start, and how the ecosystem is developing. That’s exactly what Digital Catapult asked, when we took on the task to map UK 5G players and activities.

Where do we start? What constitutes 5G activity? The 5G ecosystem can seem so complex and comprises of so many technologies that almost no single activity encompasses them all. When Digital Catapult starting conducting the 5G Nation report there was a clear need to represent all these stakeholders and the corresponding activities in a formal and structured manner. This helped to identify which areas are most commonly researched and importantly whether any niche player has the potential to transform and disrupt the ecosystem with innovative solutions.

Digital Catapult’s research discovered the areas where the UK is strongest in 5G;

  • Systems integration
  • Software development
  • Fundamental communication research.

In terms of use cases, immersive and transport are mostly cited in the identified activities. However, neglected areas such as fix wireless access, seem to be the first-to-market service in the US by Verizon.

Classification of terms provides a foundation for research

Classifying a project or activity as ‘5G’ related is challenging. Digital Catapult initially approached the classification from a technical perspective before considering how the technology is being applied. The research needed to define terms that would not be too abstract or too specific. Other industry players have previously taken different approaches but these either didn’t provide significant insights or was overly focused on a particular industry player’s own technology. As a neutral innovation centre Digital Catapult’s was able to combine the best aspects of different perspectives and ultimately reach a more holistic classification. We understood however that not everyone would agree with this classification, and so exploited our neutral positioning to bring together key players from academia, industry and local government to debate and review classifications.

The illustration below depicts the selected terms.

The terms selected are formed from three main areas. Firstly, the key technology enablers associated with 5G networks, including software-defined networks (SDN), network function virtualization (NFV) and multi-access edge computing (MEC). The second, defined the components of a mobile network in access and core network such as antennas and evolved packet core (EPC). Finally, we are capturing the key verticals and use cases where 5G is expected to have impact. e.g. automotive, eHealth, Industry 4.0, media (AR/VR), smart cities (including energy) and the corresponding business models.

Where is the opportunity for the UK in 5G?

This classification allowed us to identify and map out related research and development projects in the UK that have been active in the past five years. More than 130 academic and 60 projects and activities have been classified as of the end of March 2018. The list is not exhaustive and increases almost every week with new announcements and developments, however this shows the breadth of research taking place in the UK across the 5G spectrum.

The majority of the projects include elements of SDN and NFV, which require advanced software development skills. Such experience is available the UK Plc either from computer science graduates or from highly skilled international innovators that come to the UK for that reason. The evolution of the telco systems includes network automation and intelligence. This is an area with great potential, one where the UK could become a world leader given its longstanding expertise in artificial intelligence.

Further, research on signal processing is one of the areas where UK academia has been traditionally strong. From the early digital advances in GSM up to the latest multi-user MIMO techniques for 5G, UK researchers have been at the forefront. This is expected to continue even beyond 5G. Unfortunately, industrial research from big telco vendors is mostly being conducted offshore. Therefore, it was imperative for the UK to excel in system integration working in a competitive multi-vendor environment. Activities like the 5GUK University Test Network and the rest of the UK5G Testbeds and Trials Programme projects, showcase the expertise required for system integration. The 5GUK project has collectively developed a 5G Exchange capability, which is unique worldwide, in order to facilitate interoperation and collaboration between initial test networks and support future 5G projects in the UK and abroad.

In terms of use cases, most of the activities are focused on immersive media and transport. This is expected, as the UK has long-term expertise in media production and consumption with more than 1,000 immersive specialist companies, which could potentially be positively impacted by the advent of 5G. Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) applications consume lots of data and require a very responsive system to avoid motion sickness. Moreover, transport and specifically connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) is a vertical where 5G has great potential. Several activities in the UK are investigating CAVs, not only on how 5G will impact them though. Even Her Majesty The Queen has pledged to make the UK a world leader in CAVs, and there is evidence that the UK ranks amongst the top five countries. However, digital infrastructure along the transport network is not in line with the research on the vehicles themselves. This is an area where there is need for further investment.

Find out how Digital Catapult’s classification can help you navigate the 5G ecosystem

How can industry experts, SMEs and policy-makers use Digital Catapult’s classification? We have made the results public and with an additional mapping tool on our website. Readers can use these to help identify potential partners or others to work with, or to identify your unique value proposition in the market. Finally, funders and policy-makers can use this to diversify their portfolio e.g. if most of your activity is in a specific tech area, drive funding into other areas to encourage growth.

To find more about these projects and what the UK 5G ecosystem looks like, read our report.