HuaweiHow academia can shape the future of 5G

How academia can shape the future of 5G


Multiple vendors, international collaboration and interdisciplinary research can help decide the best ways to implement new technologies and educate everyone about its potential uses

The innovations arising from 5G-enabled technologies will offer incredible opportunities. They will change how we live and work, and transform our societies, and yet, in 2020, 5G has an image problem.

The most dramatic misconceptions surrounding 5G are preposterous: online conspiracy theories linking 5G with the Covid-19 pandemic. There are other misunderstandings about 5G, mainly caused by geopolitical tensions, which could also hold back its implementation. Rahim Tafazolli, head of the Institute for Communication Systems at the University of Surrey, believes it is vital that academia helps everyone become better informed.

“The role of academia is to educate people,” he says. “We need to say what the benefits are, as well as the disadvantages of these technologies. But it takes time. We need to educate. We need to train. We need to inform people.”

Dr Tafazolli argues that academia is well placed to be a neutral stakeholder that soothes the general public’s concerns about 5G, and that also informs policymakers and business leaders to help them make decisions about its deployment. Public and private sector collaboration is also critical, because the implications for society are so wide-ranging. Dr Tafazolli describes 5G as the “special generation” that serves many different functions. We must think of it as more than just faster mobile broadband speeds, he explains. 5G also includes increased capacity of the network that serves an ecosystem of technologies, the Internet of Things, with machines, robots, and devices all connected 24/7 with high reliability and ultra low latency. 5G technology therefore has the ability to automate activities so that factories may run remotely. Transport, healthcare, education and power supplies could also become highly automated, improving their performance and creating different kinds of work for humans.

In addition to conspiracy theories affecting the perception of 5G, tensions between the United States and China have made its deployment a geopolitical issue. Muhammed Imran, professor of communication systems and dean of University of Glasgow UESTC (Systems Power & Energy), understands why governments are cautious when it comes to a nation’s digital infrastructure, but agrees that it is academia’s job to inform and support their decisions.

Dr Imran makes a case for diversification, with multiple vendors ensuring that there is no single point of failure, and for codeveloping technologies with international partners to foster trust. “The way forward is to open up platforms, so that everyone develops things in collaboration with one another,” he says. “They [vendors] will have to open up their protocols, their architectures, their systems. Once they open it up for scrutiny, people can see and understand how things are being done.”

Dr Imran also believes that academia can work with government and business to construct frameworks that would ensure 5G was an engine of digital equity. He cites Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) funding for 5G RuralFirst, the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme and 5G New Thinking as opportunities to help academics build business cases for reducing digital inequality and bringing connectivity to areas of low population density, such as the Highlands and islands in the north of Scotland. Such projects require academia to think beyond engineering perspectives and introduce interdisciplinary partnerships, with social science and humanities supporting engineering cohorts. “These kinds of business models have to be thought about by the business academics, right?” says Dr Imran. “What will work? What will not work? How will we judge this a success? Those are societal key performance indicators. Over time we have to see how 5G has executed a positive use case in overcoming not just the digital divide itself but the educational, technological and economic divide.”

The time to act is now, he says. Governments have difficult decisions to make, but they must seize the initiative. “We do not have the option of pressing the pause button,” says Dr Imran. “If we miss this first round of innovation and development then it will be very difficult to catch up.”

Thankfully, innovation and development are already under way in the UK. Dr Tafazolli says that business-academia collaborations and DCMS Test Beds and Trials projects such as those in rural Scotland and the Worcestershire 5G Consortium – which held the UK’s first 5G industrial trial at the Worcester Bosch factory – are ushering in a new age. “There were a lot of lessons learned,” he says. Lessons that will help realise 5G’s potential.

Rahim Tafazolli and Muhammed Imran were participants in the UK Academic Salon 2020.

Learn more about Huawei and higher education.

Brought to you by