Mapping the future

13 September 2019

5G, space and the future of spectrum were all topics of discussion at The Royal Geographical Society for Ofcom’s Mapping the Future event, which took place earlier this week.

Mapping the Future is a platform for Ofcom to explain its current spectrum policy position and plans for the future, as well as allowing industry the chance to share ideas on how they think spectrum could be managed more effectively.

Google and US regulator the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) were among the organisations delivering speeches on the day.

Kicking things off

The event, opened by our Chief Executive Sharon White, welcomed more than 200 delegates from around the world for a day of debate and discovery.

The first panel session was chaired by our Cristina Data, our Spectrum Policy Director. Panellists discussed how different sectors are integrating wireless technology into their operations, with technology consultancy Cambridge Consultants looking at 5G from a very broad perspective – exploring potential applications across industries and in everyday life, such as automating factory equipment and enabling superfast mobile data.

Cristina Data leading the first panel of the day

Cristina Data leading the first panel of the day

We heard from David Crawford at the University of Strathclyde about testing 5G in agriculture, which has involved farmers testing autonomous farming technology in the field. Small machines scour the field using a video sensor. The machine then applies the relevant fertilisers and pesticides to where it’s needed and at the necessary quantities – all made possible by 5G. This helps to save resources and boost efficiency.

The technology is highly innovative but Crawford highlighted some potential barriers to its applications, including the price and availability of spectrum access in rural areas. However, Crawford touched on the idea of new business models such as cooperatives, which could overcome these barriers. Ofcom has also recently announced a new spectrum “sharing” approach, which could see more organisations access the spectrum they need, and at low cost.

Modernising social care

Liverpool City Council, which is running an initiative that builds 5G networks specifically to test potential uses, an insight into some real-world uses of 5G. The council is currently trialling the next generation of connectivity in health and social care.

The council is working with a company called Blu Wireless, which has installed 5G nodes on lampposts across the city – creating a bespoke 5G network.

Patients at home in Liverpool have felt benefits of the trial through:

  • smart networks: virtual-reality applications that link patients to family and friends remotely, helping to combat loneliness;
  • biomonitors that can detect the early signs of dehydration
  • video link systems that allow pharmacists to remotely monitor whether patients are taking their medication correctly.

The reduction in latency (the time between instructing a wireless device to perform an action and the completion of that action) that 5G networks provide is what makes these applications practical and safe for use and is a successful demonstration of how 5G could impact people in the UK.

These applications aren’t new themselves, but the connectivity better supports hi-tech social care infrastructure – reassuring patients that they aren’t cut off from their support networks.

The attentive 200-plus strong audience as the speakers give their presentations

The attentive 200-plus strong audience as the speakers give their presentations

Our role

In a similar vein, the next panel was led by Ofcom directors Helen Hearn, Director of Spectrum Management and Authorisation, Graham Plumb, Director of Spectrum Broadcasting and Armelle Boisset, Director of Spectrum Engineering. They reflected on how Ofcom has worked to deliver material benefit to the UK.

For example, in the past year, we've made more spectrum available for mobile connectivity, opened up access to the airwaves for businesses and continued our work to manage interference so people can work and live largely uninterrupted.

Food for thought

The next two panels focused on the role of wireless in a changing world and how Ofcom manages the spectrum in an international context. The speakers touched on 6G and satellite technology but also on topics closer to home such as the environmental impact of wireless technology.

In his closing remarks, Philip Marnick, Ofcom's Spectrum Group Director, drove home the message of collaboration and open-mindedness among spectrum users with regards to spectrum sharing. Ofcom’s priority is to ensure everyone reaps the benefits of spectrum, from businesses to consumers and public service providers – without interference – and by bringing together a diverse range of organisations, Mapping the Future has helped us get a little closer to that point.

What is spectrum?

Spectrum is the invisible infrastructure that supports all devices needing to communicate without wires – such as televisions, car key fobs, baby monitors, wireless microphones and satellites. Mobile phones use spectrum to connect to a local mast so people can make calls and access the internet.

Only a limited amount of spectrum is available, so it needs to be managed carefully. Certain bands of spectrum are also used for different purposes.

The airwaves we’re making available are often referred to as ‘millimetre wave’ spectrum. They involve radio waves operating at extremely high frequencies. Frequencies in this spectrum range are currently used for a number of different services, including helping to provide wireless internet services.

What difference is 5G expected to make?

infographic about what difference will 5G make?