Campus close-up: Testing the future of telecommunications

The University of Surrey’s centre for testing the next generation of mobile technology has seen significant buy-in from industry

July 30, 2015
Man takes picture, City2Surf fun run, Sydney, Australia, 2013
Source: Reuters
In the zone: once the project is completed, 5G coverage will be available to a small area around the centre and campus

While some of us are only just upgrading the mobile internet capabilities in our pocket from 3G to 4G, academics at the University of Surrey are already working on the next generation of mobile communication, 5G.

Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre, which is due to open officially in September, is working with industry to develop the flexible infrastructure that will handle society’s ever-growing demand for mobile data. Unlike 4G, which relies on fixed aerials to provide mobile internet coverage to a certain area, 5G uses software to detect internet demand and feed coverage to where the demand is.

The benefit of juggling resources in this way is faster and greater capacity mobile internet. If it sounds complicated, that is because it is and it is not likely to come into play until 2020.

At Surrey, the 5GIC is a £70 million project in collaboration with industry dedicated to creating a test bed to develop the technologies required for 5G. It boasts more than a dozen industry partners, including Vodafone, EE, Samsung, Telefónica and Fujitsu, which are helping to fund the technology in exchange for access to the facilities.

Keith Robson, the chief operating officer at 5GIC, says that it will be the only centre of its kind anywhere in the world. Once completed, the test bed will offer 5G coverage to a 4km square area around the centre and university campus.

“For all intents and purposes it is going to mimic what you would get in a 5G environment in a small town,” says Mr Robson. Academics already have a small number of 5G phones which are beginning to talk to the network, he adds.

Mr Robson says that the university was already talking about creating a test bed when the Higher Education Funding Council for England issued a call for ideas for the UK research partnership investment fund in 2013. “We just happened to have our partners lined up so when the call came out we were able to move very quickly to crystallise around that and we put in a bid for £12 million,” he says.

It won the funding under the condition that for every £1 of money from Hefce, the university must pull in £2 from industry. The project initially had seven partners, with a total value of £36 million, but since then it has “grown enormously” with some companies approaching the centre wanting to become part of the project. “It is very different to anything else that I have ever worked on,” adds Mr Robson.

The centre has a five-year programme with companies on a rolling agreement that is renewed annually. Mr Robson says that it is unique as it offers companies from the “incredibly competitive industry” of telecoms the chance to work together in a complete 5G environment. This will, for example, allow them to develop common standards.

The benefit for Surrey, whose experience and expertise in telecoms research is “number one in Europe”, according to Robson, is that it allows academics to “stay ahead of the field and stay relevant globally”.

“The only way of doing that was to go for something of this scale. It is a massive global industry and the centre now gives us the prospect of a new platform for the future,” he says.

“We can compete much more proactively in a growing burgeoning global sector… in terms of research it is essentially a platform for some significant expansion over the next few years,” he adds.

Mr Robson says that other universities will also be able to access the facilities, and it will allow Surrey to engage in European Commission-funded Horizon 2020 research programmes.

The industrial partners will help steer the research programme at the centre and a “well-defined" process is in place to manage any resulting intellectual property issues.

Mr Robson says that the fact that partners have confidence they are not going to be part of something that was “very prescriptive and very academic” is part of the centre's success so far. “They got a real say in what we do and [that] encouraged them to invest more,” he adds.

In numbers

£70 million – the size of the investment in the centre

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Print headline: Telecommunications hub to bring 5G to your fingertips

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