BT’s 5G university challenge
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:
David Wrout talking to Philip Mason on camera BT’s principal technology partner David Wrout

Philip Mason talks to BT’s principal technology partner, David Wrout, about the UK’s first dedicated 5G network at the campus of Warwick University

One of the themes of the latest issue of Land Mobile is the way in which ‘work’ is likely to be carried out in a post-pandemic world.

This obviously includes the notion of ‘remote working’, facilitated in particular by Teams, Zoom and whatever might come after as the market continues to evolve. We have also looked at education, again focusing not just on lesson content but how the nature of learning itself might change, with ‘offsite’ delivery now becoming increasingly viable.

Having said all that, however – and with life becoming increasing ‘convenient’ on a daily basis – it is clear that in certain circumstances, there is just nothing like being there. This is certainly the case when it comes to education, where the experience of being surrounded by fellow students is actually central to the overall learning process.

This is currently being borne out at Warwick University, which in normal times boasts a thriving campus of over 20,000 students. It is also the site of the UK’s first dedicated 5G network, as rolled out by BT towards the end of last year.

Discussing the deployment in a statement released at the time, the company said: “[The network] brings ultrafast 5G mobile coverage to university students, staff and visitors across the 720-acre site. The installation is the first phase of a strategic alliance between BT and the university to accelerate the co-creation of 5G-led capabilities within the campus, and for industries across the UK.”

The statement continued: “The installation will mark the university as a testbed for research, industry and consumer 5G use case development. [It] will further enhance Warwick’s research and student experience, while also bringing 5G’s faster speeds, reliability and response times to people in neighbouring areas.”

Work/research areas mentioned in the statement include ‘connected autonomous mobility’ (ie, autonomous vehicles), medical tech, as well as e-gaming. Students and staff also
have access to the network “in a consumer context”.

Connected autonomous mobility

BT’s principal technology partner is David Wrout. As such, he was one of the key players on the Warwick deployment, which itself comes on the heels of other enterprise-based 5G projects, such as the company’s recent Belfast Harbour pilot.

Discussing the origin of the Warwick campus roll-out, he says: “Warwick University is a really good example of how we’re starting to engage with customers. In this case, that meant the university’s chief innovation officer David Plumb, as well as its digital healthcare faculty and auto innovation centre. The latter is one of the most inspiring facilities in the UK.

“Talking to David, we agreed that we had to unlock the potential of 5G, both for students and for the research side. I believe that the UK has a super opportunity to lead in the digital era, something which I think will happen in this decade.”

As mentioned, one of the key focuses of the roll-out is the connected vehicle piece, with the university mounting what BT calls “Europe’s first connected autonomous mobility demonstration over a public 5G network”.

This work is being undertaken by the Warwick Manufacturing Group, looking specifically at vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) comms. The demonstration itself involves two “connected autonomous pods” exchanging live data feeds, including LiDAR (light detection and ranging) alongside live video alerts.

Drilling down further into this aspect of the project, Wrout continues: “Transport wasn’t actually on our radar, at least initially. When we launched 5G, the initial focus was on the consumer network, then we looked at healthcare. But autonomous driving… we thought it would take some time. As it turns out, the automotive industry is now taking this area of work very seriously.

“When the time came to talk to Warwick about the automotive piece, we asked what their priorities were, and they told us that V2V was central to everything. The research taking place at the university essentially involves vehicles sending automatic messages to each other about obstacles on the road ahead.”

He continues: “At the same time, what’s known as ‘V2X’ is also incredibly important. This could mean vehicle to vehicle, but also vehicle to pedestrian and vehicle to infrastructure. These things will undoubtedly come into play at some point, all the time being driven by the use-case.

“With that in mind, we need to find out how those use-cases can be evolved through the 5G network itself and how it’s leveraged.

How can we influence chip manufacture, and what do we need to tell Qualcomm, Apple and Samsung? The idea is to play the role of ecosystem leader rather than just network leader, so we have to be bold.”

The time machine

The ongoing collaboration between BT and Warwick University has the potential to be truly beneficial, not just for the organisations in question but for UK enterprise as a whole.

That being the case, however, you have to wonder what the students themselves are getting out of it. Beyond the ability to stream endless episodes of Game of Thrones, how will the learning experience be enriched by the headline benefits of 5G?

For Wrout, the answer is the impact of massively increased bandwidth and low latency on the education environment itself. This could mean – going back to the topic of ‘remote learning’ – adding another dimension to lectures being delivered to and from disparate locations. It could also mean turning the classroom itself into something akin to a time machine.

Discussing this aspect of the work, Wrout says: “We carried out a trial recently involving the University of Glasgow, enabling VR lectures taking place in real time from a different part of the facility.

“That demonstrates the viability of virtual reality content delivered by the teacher themselves, which the student obviously has the potential to rewind and watch again.”

Wrout also refers to the possibility of creating VR/AR-based courses with the aim of placing students ‘inside’ virtual learning environments. He offers the example of the lab or biotech centre, but the locations in question could in theory be situated anywhere, as well as at any point in time.

Who’s to say that a history student – for instance – couldn’t experience Agincourt or the Yalta Conference, at least in a sense?

“If we can put you right inside a different environment, that has the potential to be truly revolutionary,” Wrout says. “It opens the perspective of what education can be.”

Going back to the subject of the coverage itself, Wrout describes the deployment as delivering a “public/commercial 5G macro cell presence onto the actual Warwick campus”. BT believes that it is the first of its kind to have a 5G cell placed “in the middle of the campus footprint”, rather than just “taking advantage of coverage provided by an inner-city cell, fortuitously deployed nearby”.

Going into greater detail, Wrout says: “We put in the system to ensure that we were providing maximum coverage. It’s a giant macro infrastructure, possessing a variety of spectrum portfolios including GSM 1800, UMTS 2100, LTE 1800, LTE 2100, LTE 2600, as well as NR (5G) 3500MHz.

“Going forward, we will be looking into further densification, with the intention of expanding our 5G footprint within the campus and onto adjacent sites. There are other sites nearby which are still 4G-only, but there are also others which have already been upgraded to 5G. The other thing we’re going to focus on is indoor coverage, depending on what the needs are when it comes to R&D.

“We’re currently asking whether we need to build a specific indoor network as part of the whole concept. We’re also looking at the evolution of the network itself, from the current mid-range 5G potentially to other portfolios such as mmWave. The concept really is expanding all the time.”

As indicated, the roll-out at Warwick University campus is one of a variety of parallel deployments and trials being carried out by BT across the UK. This includes the likes of Belfast Harbour, but also its collaboration with University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust on remote diagnostics, its Worcester Bosch factory deployment, and so on.

With the interview coming to an end, it would be remiss not to ask Wrout’s view on the future of 5G for enterprise in the UK. Do businesses need to be ‘sold’ the use-case, or will the demand come naturally once they realise what the technology can do?

“That’s something else which is also evolving,” he says, “like the technology itself. The most important thing for businesses is the creation of value, so therefore, every time we become involved in or establish a use-case, we ask a series of questions. Is it repeatable? Is it ‘ecosystem-friendly’, or is it very itemised and isolated?

“The key is the ability to cross-fertilise, both in terms of the connectivity piece, as well as the enablement layer, and applications.

“These are the things that you want to be able to port over to different sectors, after which the question is, how can I monetise it? To reiterate, the most important thing in the beginning is the creation of value.”

2021 looks like it is going to be an important year in the roll-out of 5G for UK enterprise. BT will likely play a central role in that.

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