INFRASTRUCTURE

Harnessing 5G's transformative potential for future-ready digital infrastructures

Cllr Neil Fawcett sets out why Oxfordshire CC jumped at the chance to lead the joint funding bid for the 5G IR (5G Innovation Regions) programme, for the benefit of local government and beyond.

If you're interested in technology and innovation, you may have seen that Oxfordshire County Council recently received a multi-million-pound investment from government to roll out several 5G use cases in the local area. We're delighted that the funds have been approved and that this programme will be going ahead.

But why is 5G and digital infrastructure as a whole so important? I'll simplify this tech-speak and get to the core of why it matters. The technology that forms the telecoms network updates and improves regularly, like how mobile phone handset technology evolves with every new handset. 5G, which stands for fifth generation, has higher internet speeds, much greater capacity, and is faster to respond than previous generations of mobile communications technology.

Exploring the potential from 5G is part of a wider push from central government to enable delivery of leading-edge digital infrastructure in the UK and enable all regions to take advantage of the opportunities available in the digital economy. Good digital technology is vital to supporting the economy and helping businesses to grow.

In short, staying competitive in the digital world will enable more innovative solutions that benefit the economy. Bold innovations need strong connectivity to underpin them. The UK is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and to stay ahead of the curve compared to other digital economies, such as in Europe, we're about to try out some real use cases of 5G, and hopefully take them further.

The programme I mentioned at the start is called the 5G IR (5G Innovation Regions) programme, and we led the joint funding bid on behalf of nine other councils – Buckinghamshire, all Berkshire's unitary authorities, Central Bedfordshire, and Cambridgeshire – and will now work closely with them on a project called England's Connected Heartland.

We jumped at the chance to lead this programme with our excellent partners. As a digital advocate, I know that embracing 5G technology isn't about trying a new technology for the sake of it. Our residents and businesses are at the heart of all we do, and I can see that the benefits of 5G are vast.

So vast in fact, that some of the potential benefits of 5G include innovative services such as smart cities, autonomous vehicles, smart agriculture, remote surgeries, factory robotics, and even advances in virtual and augmented reality. We're ready to tap into the incredible potential that 5G has to offer.

As this title suggests, we want the best possible digital infrastructure (physical and virtual technologies) to allow world class innovation to thrive.

The money for 5G IR will be invested initially in two major 5G projects – East West Rail between Bicester and Bletchley, and Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.

Once these projects are completed, we will use the evidence to encourage further investment and replicate the successful model, ideally at other local science and technology parks and rail transport.

The Harwell campus is at the heart of innovation in the UK and has numerous organisations across four important clusters (space, energy, health, and quantum) that need the best possible digital infrastructure. By us leading the way locally, Oxfordshire can continue to be respected as a leader in the competitive international technology and innovation space.

We will also explore how 5G along the new Bicester to Bletchley train line will provide the rail industry with improved safety and operational capabilities, whilst trackside communities and businesses will have access to improved internet speed and capability. Passengers will also benefit from fast and reliable onboard Wi-Fi. The project will even uncover how 5G can enable agri-tech applications to be used for improving farm productivity along the route.

Our ambitious plans to roll out the 5G IR programme on the East West Rail between Bicester and Bletchley and at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus are just the beginning for us.

These targeted use cases will be vital in showcasing how 5G technology can be used successfully, providing us with concrete evidence to take our models even further, for the benefit of local government and beyond.

Councillor Neil Fawcett is Oxfordshire County Council's Cabinet Member for Community and Corporate Services

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