Talking 5G: When will East Anglia get connected and will Huawei pose a threat?

Does East Anglia need to be 5G connected? Picture: Archant

Does East Anglia need to be 5G connected? Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

Britain is awaiting the next leap in connectivity - 5G.

Geoff Connell. Picture: Norfolk County Council

Geoff Connell. Picture: Norfolk County Council - Credit: Norfolk County Council

But will the East of England ever erase it's 'not spots' in phone signal, let alone securing 5G?

We talk to three experts about why the region needs 5G, when it will get it, and how we go about making sure it's a secure network.

- How can the UK safely install a 5G network?

How the UK should go about becoming 5G enabled has been a source of contention on the global stage.

TechEastchief operations officer Tim Robinson. Picture: TechEast.

TechEastchief operations officer Tim Robinson. Picture: TechEast. - Credit: TechEast

Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is currently in pole position for the bid to provide 5G coverage.

MORE: Airbnb angels: Meet the start-up insuring the £140bn sharing economyHowever MPs have been cautioned against this by the Trump administration in the US because of the company's links to the Beijing government.

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Joshua Allman, IT technician and business development manager at cyber security expert PC Simple, explained: "The fears have arisen because of a piece of Chinese legislation that differs to UK law. Chinese law states that the government should to be allowed access to records and data kept by a Chinese company.

Joshua Allman. Picture: DEVOTEDMEDIA

Joshua Allman. Picture: DEVOTEDMEDIA - Credit: DEVOTEDMEDIA

"Obviously this has caused concern that UK data kept by Huawei may be accessible to a foreign government."

Westminster has been told by the National Security Council that making a decision on whether to allow Huawei to provide 5G is "a matter of priority".

Committee chairman Dominic Grieve said: "The debate over whether or not Huawei should be allowed to supply equipment to the UK 5G network is damaging the UK's international relationships."

He was speaking particularly about ties with Britain's intelligence sharing "Five Eyes" partners, made up of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

But Mr Allman said: "Huawei is a good company, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. I think because of political tensions this decision has been blown out of proportion. They're the frontrunners simply because they're the furthest ahead with the 5G technology supply."

Indeed, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) stated: "This is not a 'pro' or 'anti' China debate. We must take action to reduce our over-reliance on a Chinese technology and consider how we can create greater diversity in the market."

Mr Allman said: "There won't be a 'back door' to the UK's data if 5G is provided by Huawei, because the government has state hackers employed to test for loopholes.

"At the end of the day it doesn't matter who provides the 5G coverage, if someone wants to get data they probably will one way or another."

He added: "Being 5G enabled won't provide hackers with any more data than 3G or 4G does, the only difference is 5G is faster and has better connectivity. I think the companies most likely to use 5G will be haulage and transport companies who need to get hold of people all over the place - the big companies holding a lot of data will have their own VPNs and a lot of security built in."

- Norfolk County Council's head of IMT, Geoff Connell, on why the authority has made it a priority to get the East connected.

The council wishes to attract investment in digital infrastructure given the quality of life benefits of mobile phone and internet access, as well as the substantial potential to stimulate growth in the local economy, particularly for digital entrepreneurs, agritech and tourism.

MORE: New Silicon Stakeholders: How the East can build its own valleyThis includes all forms of fixed and mobile networks, including 5G.

Despite past and ongoing investment from the mobile phone companies, 2/3 and 4G mobile coverage across the county remains patchy and this is a regular cause of frustration from Norfolk's residents and businesses.

We will not be forgetting the need to get the basics right in the pursuit of the latest and greatest technologies.

There is a lot of hype about 5G networks from companies promising faster mobile phone data services and greater capacity.

The first commercially available 5G coverage has now been launched in the UK, but it is only available on new handsets in six cities.

We will be working with industry and government to encourage mobile network operators to bring this technology to Norfolk to improve coverage, mobile speeds and provide benefits such as ultra-low latency connectivity for use in areas such as agritech and the tech sector.

A small minority has

voiced concerns about potential negative health impacts of the introduction of 5G mobile technology. Those concerned should refer to Ofcom (the mobile industry regulator) and government advisors Public Health England.

- Tim Robinson, chief operating officer at TechEast, discusses when we might get a 5G connection and what needs to happen to get us there.

5G (or the fifth generation of mobile technology) is the next big thing in telecoms promising much faster speeds for data transfer over mobile networks. Estimates range from 3x to 10x faster than the current quickest 4G mobile broadband.

There are a number of important potential applications (or "use cases" in the industry jargon) for 5G including streaming of 4k ultra-high definition video, connecting driverless cars and lorries to networks, and enabling

surgeons to conduct remote operations using robots in hospital operating theatres.

That could mean opportunities for new business start-ups taking advantage of the shift in technology and providing innovative services that are currently impossible to deliver.

For handset manufacturers and mobile network operators there is the promise of customers paying a premium for access to the latest toys so there's plenty of hype around the new technology.

But the UK lags behind other countries in 5G adoption - for example South Korea will have about 85 cities with 5G connectivity by the end of 2019 whereas EE expects 16 UK cities to have access, Vodafone expects nine and O2 a mere four in the same timeframe, none of which will be in the East of England.

MORE: Tech East: How do we make Norwich the right kind of city for tech businesses?

So when can we expect 5G to arrive in Norfolk and Suffolk and, more importantly, will it fix the notorious "not spot" issues with poor on non-existent mobile coverage in isolated rural locations?

In a word: no time soon and no. Installing 5G requires a much denser network infrastructure than 3G or 4G with a requirement for new masts and towers.

Parts of the region are very sparsely populated. Why would a mobile operator rush to build a network in say Breckland with just 106 residents per square km compared with say parts of London where population density top 15,000? This is where government needs to intervene and do more.

And 5G I hear you cry; what about some 3G or - at the very least - a phone signal?

The telecoms regulator Ofcom places an obligation on mobile operators to cover most UK residents - EE aim for 95% 4G coverage by next year - but it doesn't take a genius to work out that the missing 5% will be in rural areas.

Local residents will also have to weigh up their thirst for connectivity against resistance to visible new infrastructure in the landscape and health and safety concerns.

However, 5G is not the only game in town. Even if mobile signal coverage is poor there can be other solutions to the need to be "always connected".

For example East Suffolk Council is experimenting with a three-year pilot of free WiFi in Framlingham town centre - which will mean that on market days traders can now take contactless payments, essential as fewer and fewer of us are carrying cash. to keep our market towns vibrant. Meanwhile Norfolk County Council has secured funding for vouchers of up to £2,500 per business for 'gigabit' fast broadband.

Lastly, New Anglia LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) has invested in a specialist IoT (Internet of Things) network in Norfolk and Suffolk to connect physical devices and sensors to the internet to trial new products in areas like agritech, flood management and traffic control.

The message is that local communities and government can help shape the future but we need to keep influencing central government and big business to invest much more in our region.