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Digital Deep Dive: an inside look at the West Midlands 5G rollout

10 min

c. Dorian Le Senechal, Unsplash

Having just announced the winners of its first funding round competition in 5G-enabled transport, West Midlands 5G (WM5G) is hoping investment in UK firms can enhance mobility options in the region, and potentially leave a lasting national legacy. Quadrant Smart sits down with WM5G team members Chris Holmes and Lesley Holt to find out more

The celebration of last month’s Transport for West Midlands’ £2.4m funding competition is one signalling a propitious future for Chris Holmes, Lesley Holt, and the rest of the team at West Midlands 5G. Following an uncertain summer where all aspects of life were affected by virulent effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, the awarding of seven contracts to UK-based innovators is hoped to be the start of a pioneering journey in harnessing the benefits of 5G in the region.

The funding round, in partnership with Innovate UK, sought to push the boundaries of mobility: Capacity Manager, a traffic management solution transferring real-time data over 5G to a ‘dynamic road network model’, intends to allow incidents and congestion to be better managed on roadways; in light rail, Tram Safety, a solution offered by DigitalRail, Icomera, and Classone Systems, utilises 5G to stream CCTV footage from trams to enhance passenger experience, improve safety, and manage now omnipresent social distancing measures; and, in infrastructure management, the CURBS project, using Lidar sensors allows 3D point-cloud data to be sent over 5G, providing detailed infrastructure maps on road and rail, seeks to identify and manage locations of potholes, improve cyclist safety, and more.

Chris Holmes, programme director, Transport, WM5G

This handful of projects, and WM5G as a whole, is part of a £20m programme between the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), that seeks to transform the region into a 5G ‘testbed’ – with additional investment from the public and private sector in the region.

“We’ve got seven projects which we’ve nominated through that process within the £2.5m grant funding – so that’s really exciting to be able to support so many. It’s actually slightly more than we thought because of the bids and the shape of them and the financial commitment with being able to do that,” Chris Holmes, programme director of Transport at WM5G, told Quadrant Smart.

“They range from looking at the different use cases on trams, looking at the different use cases on road and sensor detection – what you can do with some of the traffic management and forecasting, through to other things such as parking. There’s a great range, really exciting stuff.”

Chris and Lesley will be speaking at Peloton’s ‘Redefining Mobility Post-Covid’ webinar on 21 March. Click here to register!

Staying solutions-savvy

The approach of the funding competition, which took in a wealth of applications and was able to “stay more or less” on track through due diligence and assessment as UK society hurtled – or rather spluttered – through lockdown, was through solutions-orientated thinking, with a focus on what a transport user’s “hidden needs” may be when considering mobility around the region.

“Having come from a research background, it’s always pretty good to look at those needs,” Chris said. “Some of those are what are known as hidden needs: people don’t always realise that they spend time doing things, and there are inefficiencies.”

Appyway, one of the 5G projects ongoing in West Midlands c. TfWM

Following the condensing of around 100 use cases in the area, competition managers were able to establish some key themes around public transport management, and the need to entice users back onto the public network.

For roads and congestion, winners including the aforementioned Capacity Manager, as well as Predikt – a predictive parking system utilising 5G kerbside imaging to reduce parking space search time – were outlined by Chris as having the potential to give council traffic management the resources and technology needed to better alleviate bottlenecks and highway concerns around the region.

Some of those are what are known as hidden needs: people don’t always realise that they spend time doing things

Though a lot of information is passed back to local authorities to future-plan for congestion, these solutions can pick up the pace of transfer, says Chris: “Obviously [local authorities] have cameras, but a) there aren’t enough of them, and b) they don’t necessarily pass enough information that can be consumed in an immediate form back to control the traffic in any way,” he said.

“What we’re looking at is easily deployable 5G-enabled sensors. It could be cameras or radars, but also emission measuring equipment as well, or weather measuring equipment. You can imagine a situation where you marry those things together, and you’re then able to control the traffic by merging real-life information from emissions and then traffic to again put some more intelligence into the traffic control system.”

West Midlands Metro c. Mick Baker, Flickr

From a public safety and community relations standpoint, some of the winners chosen crystalised the focus on a safe, inclusive, return to transport: CCTV footage from the Tram Safety project is hoped to alleviate any apprehension on crime and overcrowding on tram vehicles; Transport Accessibility, provided by GoMedia and Icomera, creates a passenger service with the help of 5G to assist visually impaired passengers to travel; and, perhaps the most intriguing winner of the contracts, 5G-enabled sensors at stations and major venues combined with booking and travel information will provide data to enhance and make a harmonious cultural event offering for tourists visiting the region.

“It’s about the products and services to help passengers’ confidence to get them to use those services” Chris noted.

If you can provide information to those individuals prior to arriving, and then some help and services which are more immediate, again that might help people navigate their way

“Within train stations – if you take Grand Central, or Birmingham New St. as an example, you’ve got people who are within the station who can help disabled or partially-sighted people. It’s those sorts of things, but if you can provide information to those individuals prior to arriving, and then some help and services which are more immediate, again that might help people navigate their way round those stations in a safe and secure way.

“Those services have got a lot better over recent years; but I think there is still opportunity for improvement, even now.”

5G networks, and its future in infrastructure

Currently, a lot of the trials are utilising commercial 5G networks available, with WM5G calling on companies to work with operators of the likes of EE and Vodafone in a “cooperative relationship” in its application for funding. Chris added, however, that WM5G has a 5G accelerator initiative – the first, in Birmingham, launched virtually in March this year, with a physical building opening in November, and more planned for Wolverhampton and Coventry – with the “latest and greatest” 5G private network – similar to that of Milton Keynes Council – around the accelerator buildings for businesses to utilise and develop 5G-enabled solutions.

“They will have a lab environment, where it will have all of the next generation of 5G technologies. Whatever is next up, whether it is edge computing, or network slicing, will then be available for organisations to try and develop their services before it is commercially available,” Chris explained.

“It gives people the opportunity of giving people a head-start. We’re developing something so that when a service is available, you can launch almost simultaneously. That’s quite exciting.”

Earlier this year, the 5G conversation made national headlines following the UK Government’s designation of 5G infrastructure provider Huawei as a ‘high risk vendor’ due to concerns over its links to China. Though the WM5G project used Huawei kit in a University Hospitals Birmingham trial with BT and EE last summer, Lesley noted that the national decision to u-turn on using Huawei technologies did not have an impact on WM5G’s operations in building the 5G testbed in the region.

Lesley Holt, head of communications and engagement, c. WM5G

“I think the key thing is that we haven’t engaged with Huawei directly as a supply chain partner as a result of our procurement process,” said Lesley Holt, head of communications and stakeholder engagement at WM5G. “We treat all suppliers exactly the same, but it just so happens that we haven’t engaged with them and not had any equipment from them that we have purchased,” she explained.

Lesley added that the “government has clearly got decisions to make,” but from an operating standpoint, the WM5G stayed on-track in following government guidelines.

The coming months for West Midlands 5G – and what success could look like

The celebration of the first round of awardees will be short-lived; for the team at WM5G, the  quickly-approaching second funding round, which closes on 2 December, will once again inject £2.5m into UK-registered businesses. For this funding round, Chris tells Quadrant Smart the funding will target three key areas in transport: roads and congestion once again, enhancing logistics, and a repeated search for solutions to embolden people back onto transport as the region deals with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We didn’t cover logistics last time: so whether it’s picking up or dropping freight and parcels up through to the actual journey and journey planning and tracking, there could be a few use cases and services there that would help,” Chris said.

“Transport has suffered massively with COVID, so people clearly haven’t been using public transport – and even since lockdown has been easing, obviously there’s a lot of nervousness, understandably, about using transport.”

Though in the distant future, when the WM5G testbed ends in March 2022, Chris and his team want to be leaving a legacy. Lesley highlighted that, looking back at the previous generation of 4G, “we had no idea” of some of the applications that now assist us in our lives. “It’s that innovation that, if we can help bring that, the possibilities are just what we don’t know. It’s super exciting, I think,” she said.

We’re here to generate and support the new ideas

For Chris, success would be leaving not just a local legacy, but hopefully building a supply chain and network in transport that has national significance: “What I want to be able to do is to show that we’ve got products and services that can really make a difference to transport in the West Midlands, but also that that has a national relevance: it’s not just doing something which is a very localised benefit, but actually it would have the wider impact across the UK, or wider than that.

“We’ve supported businesses to get there; that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to generate and support the new ideas, but to help those business ideas flourish. And then make a difference, and ultimately looking at the grander benefits that surround employment and all the rest of it. It’s really around transport, and legacy around that for me.”

Quadrant Smart’s interview with WM5G is the first of a series of upcoming content on 5G in the West Midlands region. Follow our Twitter for daily updates from the Quadrant Group!

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