The future of the UK’s technology sector is intrinsically linked to 5G – from the day-to-day equipment in our homes to the most cutting-edge developments. Keith Robson explains to Mike Hughes why Surrey is the world-leader.
You might be reading this article on a 4G phone or tablet, which you will know is light-years ahead of the old 3G one you used to have where you were walking down the street colliding with lampposts waiting for a connection. Well, get ready for hyperspace. 5G is here and the world is beating a path to the doors of the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey, where Keith Robson is leading the team which literally has no boundaries.
The centre is now the largest UK academic research centre dedicated to the development of the next generation of mobile and wireless communications. Bringing together leading academic expertise and key industry partners, it is defining and developing the infrastructure that will underpin the way we communicate, work and live our lives.
Its members represent all aspects of the wireless communications and future internet domains, and include the major telecom service providers, infrastructure vendors, device and car manufacturers and include EE, Vodafone, the BBC, Samsung, BT and Fujitsu. So all the right people are paying close attention to what is happening at Surrey.
Situated on the university’s Guildford campus, the 5GIC houses 170 researchers in a purpose-built building. At its heart is the world’s leading independent testbed for trialling emerging 5G ideas, covering an area of 4km2 comprising indoor and outdoor environments.
The investment is huge, but the return for the region is almost incalculable.
“5G is not just another standard step – this is going to be a mould-breaker and a completely different architecture,” Keith told me. “It is a complete change in how the telephone networks are going to operate, like mobile wifi with very much smaller radio cells delivering very high speeds and, crucially, very much lower latency – or time delay – across the network.
“This is critical because it allows you to start working in real time across the network. The gaming community is already heavily into that, but increasingly the idea is that the network is going to be used to monitor and control things in real time. So this could be the temperature in your home or a car or drone or a robot doing dangerous work inside a mine.
“The idea will be that this network is not just about speed, but a latency of perhaps as little as a thousandth of a second for the signal to go there and back.”
This will sound like science fiction for those thousands of businesses watching the little wheel whirling around on their devices in one of the many ‘NotSpots’ for signal coverage around the UK, but in Surrey it is already fact.
“There will be much more reliability in the signal – people are talking about ‘five nines’ reliability which means it is 99.999% reliable,” said Keith, “which is the sort of figure you would get if you were using the emergency radio services and this is important if you are going to be using it in increasingly critical situations.
“It is a concept that was just raising its head when we launched the centre. 4G is still very new and is very good if you can get it, but it is still based around the old voice network whereas with 5G you are tearing up the design for something that will be in place for many, many years.”
The testbed that is making such a difference to the 5GIC and its researchers equips them with a fully-functioning advanced 4G network which, over time, will be upgraded to a fully-fledged 5G system, enabling the development and testing of 5G prototype technologies in a real world situation.
It was the brainchild of Prof Rahim Tafazolli, the hugely influential professor of mobile and satellite communications at the University since April 2000 and director of the Innovation Centre since 2012. Prof Tafazolli has decades of experience, has authored and co-authored more than 500 research publications and is co-inventor of more than 30 granted patents in digital communications.
“The testbed was the unique feature that really encouraged the industry because it was the only one in the world in an academic centre, with the largest group of industrial partners,” explains Keith. “It brought the world’s experts to Surrey to work alongside our academics when we were building it - and believe me it was an incredibly challenging project. We took top of the range 4G kit and put it in this configuration around the campus with 66 individual little radio cells.
“What we have done now is develop the software and hardware for around 250mb of capacity, which we will build to half a gigabyte and then a full gigabyte standard by the end of 2018. The possibilities are endless, with IoT the Internet of Things being one of the biggest applications. This is the principle of controlling any device via the Internet and linking those devices to each other, from kettles and cookers to aircraft engines, emergency equipment and transportation systems. There are expected to be tens of billions of connected devices within the next few years.
But the industry around IoT is only just getting started and the university is already part of IoTUK, an integrated £40m, three-year, Government programme to advance the UK’s global leadership in the sector.
Keith put it all into context by saying: “We have two machine rooms here – one controls the whole testbed, with around £20m of investment from industry partners, and the other on the same floor is entirely dedicated to the Internet of Things. So one room is the brain for the network and one is all the stuff that will be running across that network, whether that is automotive, communications or health, where our partner is the NHS.
“The health work includes a flat we have simulated which is connected to about 30 different sensors to potentially be used for people with dementia and which could be a monitor for day-to-day activity and flag any erratic behaviour.”
The 5GIC’s work is already exploding out of these rooms and making headlines and revenue around the world – yet another major industry that has an unbreakable link with the Enterprise M3 region.
“The benefits it could bring to the region as a whole are almost limitless because a huge part of the remit of the centre is to make connections out into the community,” says Keith.
“The phone is already ubiquitous in all of our lives, but we accept it is an incomplete service where the signal will drop out quite regularly. What we are seeing now are fundamental changes to how we work as a society and clearly the network is going to be another seismic shift.
“First, we had the canals bringing major change, and then the railways and then the internet and now there is this ubiquitous network fit for computers.
“Regionally, the Enterprise M3 partnership has set aside some of their Growth Fund capital and we have been looking at creating Step-out Centres with a high-speed fibre optic connection back here, to see how 5G services can fit into sectors like FinTech. We are also setting one up into the Guildford and Aldershot gaming community to provide facilities there to allow gamers to access 5G technologies.
“The thing to understand with all this progress is that we only set up the centre at the end of last year and I had imagined that we would spend the first 18 months fiddling about with the central technology. Actually, hard on the heels of opening people wanted to get straight down to the applications which were already using 3G and 4G and which needed to be made 5G-ready well in advance of a full rollout.”
This is a key point, because commercially full networks aren’t going to be available until after 2020, but companies need to be making huge bets now on what their products are going to be looking like and capable of by then. So the centre is drawing in all sizes of businesses from all sectors, each keen to be the first to harness this remarkable new technology.
“There weren’t many places in the UK that the centre could have been built, and it was actually more likely it would have gone to Germany, Korea or Japan. But the reason it came here was that Prof Tafazolli is an extraordinary guy who has been working in this field for more than 30 years and has been running the largest academic research group in mobile internet for many years.
“But that still wouldn’t have been enough to attract the centre here if there wasn’t this vision of a testbed, which was answering the ‘so what’ question and was something other universities did not pick up.
“We also had Surrey Satellite Technology as a spinout from the university, so there was a track record in disruptive technologies and people were looking over here and seeing projects happening with a global impact which gave us additional credibility.”
The long-term nature of the work is good news for the region, with endless links in the supply chain as the tech itself develops and its uses increase exponentially. The Enterprise M3 LEP is fast becoming an expert body in pinpointing and directing growth patterns so that exactly the right sectors receive exactly the right support in exactly the right geographical areas, so the 5G revolution coming out of Keith Robson’s 5G Innovation Centre is in good hands.
But his influence around the Surrey region is even deeper than that, as the founder of the Surrey 100 club. This University of Surrey network of investors (started to one day grow into 100 ‘angels’) holds an event perhaps five times a year where it listens to pitches and facilitates high-end networking. With its close ties to the Surrey Research Park, SETsquared Surrey and the Surrey Space Incubation Centre, the club provides support and training to businesses raising finance. Uniquely, it doesn’t charge any fees or take a share of any investment its companies achieve.
Over the last ten years it has either directly funded or leveraged £50m of funding into more than 100 companies. “The logic was very simple – if you take areas like Oxford and Cambridge and London, they have a magnetic draw for investors,” said Keith.
“But when I came to Surrey ten years ago we were introducing companies to American investors and taking them over there to get funding. We talked about the UK ‘valley of death’ where a small company couldn’t get funding from a bank and was too small for venture capitalists, so it was stuck in this valley of death where the idea either died or you had to go abroad. We don’t do that now.
“The idea of angel investment is a good one because it is something you can nurture, so we worked with the London Business School 100 over a couple of years and found some local angels as our first six investors with the aim of getting over the valley of death and ensuring companies in Guildford and the surrounding region have a means of getting funding.
“We built up from six to ten and then 20 and now have 47 investors who have taken us to that £50m figure. We work with local companies - but have had firms from Scotland travelling down to see us – and as a university we look to nurture tech companies.
“But we need a mix because angels want successful investments, so we have had fashion and new foods as well as cutting-edge software and MedTech. If they are exciting and innovative, we will take a look at them regardless of the sector and that seems to work well.”
So Keith Robson’s opinion of how the region is faring is well-informed and illuminating. He says: “We are going through an exciting phase, well away from the valley of death we had ten years ago. For the first time, we really don’t have that problem now and instead have much more of a ‘can do’ atmosphere.
“The issue we have is that we need to realise where we are and ‘big ourselves up’. Our American brethren have selling running through their blood but here we still shirk from putting success on a pedestal where companies and entrepreneurs should be. Let’s do it in a British way, but let’s get the word out on the street.
“There is nothing like having a bunch of successful entrepreneurs – like our Surrey 100 angels - in the room to inspire others to come here. We have the system in place, but we need to shout about it and take another big step by scaling up in the manner of the big centres in the UK like Oxford and Cambridge.
“At their best, the university model can be a really good way of bringing people together to collaborate and invest. We are trusted and have a genuinely ethical mission involving people who certainly want to make money, but also want to do good as well, with integrity and enthusiasm.”
Keith has summed up some key qualities you will find across the region he is championing. Here you will find success, trust, expertise, integrity, experience and enthusiasm. Not a bad checklist for any interested investors.....