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On Monday 22 May, PICTFOR hosted their event, The 6G Revolution – Strengthening the UK’s Wireless Infrastructure for the Next Generation, which explored the role of Government and Industry in paving the way for a more connected future.

The virtual roundtable featured insights from Holly Creek, Deputy Director for Wireless Infrastructure, Spectrum and Consumer Policy at DSIT, Dawn Butler MP, Member of the Science, Innovation, and Technology Committee, Matt Warman MP, former Minister for Digital Infrastructure, and Patricia Dooley, Head of Public Affairs at Ericsson. Simon Blagden CBE, Chair of Building Digital UK and PICTFOR’s Industry Chair, led the session.

Simon provided opening remarks, noting the expertise gathered, and then passed on to Holly Creek, Deputy Director for Wireless Infrastructure, Spectrum and Consumer Policy at DSIT. Holly began by discussing DSIT’s recently published Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, explaining that it is, at its core, about ensuring coverage for all. She spoke about the challenges presented during the nationwide roll-out of 4G and the Government’s ambitions for rolling out 5G across the country, moving towards standalone 5G which has no reliance on legacy 4G networks. Holly explained that the Government’s plan was centred on encouraging investment. She also spoke about the £40 million fund for 8-10 5G innovation regions for businesses and public services around the country. The strategy, she explained, relies on the Government ensuring that there are no coordination failures at the localised level. Holly also discussed spectrum access, commercial services, and the planned 5G adoption campaign. On 6G, she spoke about the initial £100 million funding and the Government’s desire for the UK to have a seat at the international table.

Simon Blagden then introduced Matt Warman MP, former Minister for Digital Infrastructure. Matt drew attention to the challenges spreading even the basic connectivity services to rural communities, as we focus on innovative technologies. He discussed the growing interest in 6G among experts, arguing that wireless infrastructure development is now as much a conversation about strategic geopolitical approaches as it is about technology. He spoke about the shift, heralded by 6G, toward computer-to-computer communication and the widespread adoption of AI. The key conversations, he argued, must be about who is shaping the technology, noting the different approaches between China and the rest of the world. In practice, he explained, this indicates a battle for standards and a battle for openness. Matt suggested that technologies like Open RAN will be hugely important moving forward and that, now, the conversation should focus on who is building the frameworks for these new technologies so that the UK is not reliant on infrastructure influenced by hostile actors.

The Chair then introduced Dawn Butler MP, Member of the Science, Innovation, and Technology Committee. Dawn began by speaking about her experience on the Science and Technology Committee and how, when taking evidence, they found that the UK was around 20 years behind China on 5G roll-out. She spoke about the importance of working with our allies to catch up and the way that 6G will change the way that businesses are run. Dawn agreed that the UK needs a space around the international table on this new technology. 6G, she argued, will be all about the personalised world of technology. She noted that there will likely be two 5Gs and 6Gs running: ours and China’s.

Simon then introduced Patrica Dooley from Ericsson. Patricia began by highlighting 4G’s impact on consumers, noting that 5G’s impact will be far greater for the industry and the public sector. She specified that Ericsson’s perspective was that the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy demonstrated the Government’s intention to support 5G and broader digitalisation. Patricia also noted that this Strategy revealed the various barriers to implementation. She suggested that, given the long deployment cycles, the UK Government and industry should be focusing on our 6G strategy now. Otherwise, Patricia argued, we may fall behind, especially if we don’t build a strong 5G base and keep funding targeted. Digitalising industries, she suggested, is essential to building the framework on which this technology will grow.

The Chair then opened the session for discussion. Will Stewart, from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, asked about how the full fibre rollout and Wi-Fi upgrades will integrate with 6G plans. The panel concurred that watertight connectivity is a pre-requisite for leveraging 5G and 6G to their full potential. Itret Latif, from the Federation of Communication Services, discussed the consolidation of networks and the importance of regulation around these merged networks. Vincent Korstanje, from Kigen, moved the conversation onto what we are learning from the Chinese. Speakers noted that, while Chinese infrastructure is ahead, the UK does lead on hardware security. Action Line’s Stephen Tulip encouraged colleagues to ask how we can ensure the UK is taking a whole systems approach with strategic thinking, especially in term of Intellectual Property implications. Holly Creek responded that the Government is taking this into account while also engaging with industry on the unknowns.

The panel also answered pre-submitted questions on international comparisons, the UK’s skills capacity, the security risks entailed in digitalising public services and infrastructure, how 5G and 6G will impact the UK’s productivity challenges, and the right balance between public and private sector action in building wireless infrastructure. Simon Blagden then brough the session to a close.

PICTFOR would like to thank our Parliamentary, Civil Service, and Industry speakers, as well as those who brought their insightful questions to the discussion.

If you would like further information on this topic or about PICTFOR’s programme of events, please get in touch!

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