A new national strategy for 5G has been published by the Scottish Government – adding to the pressure on Westminster to ‘show leadership’ on ambitious plans to roll out the next generation of mobile connectivity by 2027.

The new Forging Our Digital Future with 5G: A Strategy for Scotland plan highlights how a well-managed delivery of 5G connectivity could add £17 billion to Scotland’s GDP by 2035, creating 160,000 jobs and increasing productivity by £1,600 a worker in just over 15 years.

However, as telecommunications is reserved to Westminster, the paper raises some serious concerns from a Scottish perspective, including the tendency to focus network improvements on densely populated urban areas, and leaving the rural economy at the ‘end of the queue’; the report, which has a foreword from Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands, states: “As a reserved issue, 5G policy and strategy was initiated by the UK Government’s 5G strategy in March 2017 and updated in December 2017, alongside a competitive challenge fund – the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme. In July 2018, the UK Government’s ambitions were reaffirmed in its Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review (FTIR), which set the goal of the UK being a world leader in 5G, making it a UK Government priority to promote investment and innovation with an aim for the majority of the population to have 5G by 2027.”

It adds: “However, the FTIR is focused on the deployment of full fibre connectivity and the Scottish Government believes that there is now a requirement to show leadership at a national level by creating a supportive policy framework to facilitate the development and deployment of 5G to meet the 2027 ambition.”

Mobile connectivity is currently commercially led but the 25-page document questions whether there should be an “umbrella” approach to delivery in Scotland and indicates that it would like to explore options for a ‘neutral host’ model, whereby operators would share a single network solution provided on an open access basis, in order to drive costs down and improve coverage. It also challenges proposed obligations for rural coverage in the forthcoming 700 MHz spectrum auctions which it states ‘should be set at a much higher level than currently proposed for Scotland and says ‘the proposed national level of coverage should be applied equally across all UK nations.’

Other sections of the report raise concerns about security given that 5G has a broader, multi-level ‘attack surface’ which is ‘significantly different and more open than 4G’. As such, the report highlights a need to invest in secure by design cyber security measures to minimise the risks of any national rollout.

Mr Wheelhouse wrote: “The Scottish Government is determined that Scotland will not be left behind. Indeed, we will continue to work with
industry, the regulator and others in the public sector to make sure we are at the forefront of this revolution.”

The strategy was launched formally by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on a visit too Glasgow University’s School of Engineering.

She said: “Our 5G plan sets out the actions we believe are needed to ensure as much of Scotland as possible shares in the vast potential growth on offer. Our aspiration is to position Scotland as a 5G leader and a forward-looking digital nation.

“5G offers rich potential – opportunities to enhance Scotland’s global competitiveness, achieve economic growth and drive innovation across our public and private sectors.

“There are huge potential gains for the public sector if we embrace technologies such as 5G. We believe this will be a catalyst for further public sector transformation, enabling high quality, user-focused and efficient services that are driven by data.”

Potential uses of 5G technology include:

-Using in-home sensors to monitor patient health, capturing real-time health data and reducing the need for recently discharged patients to return to hospital for check-ups;
-measuring blood glucose level non-invasively with results displayed on a smartphone;
-localised flood warning systems using 5G-connected sensors to measure river level changes, giving people in remote communities greater time to prepare;
-supporting Scotland’s low-carbon objectives with public bodies exploring smart lighting, smart heating and smart electric vehicle charging hubs;
-contributing to the long-term sustainability of Scotland’s rural economy. 5G technology could underpin a wealth of rural applications, such as salmon health monitoring, sustainable tourism, radio broadcasting and connected windfarms.

Professor Chris Pearce, Dean of Research in the College of Science & Engineering at the University of Glasgow, said: “5G is a next-generation network technology which is faster, has the potential to revolutionise digital communications and create real social impact in Scotland – from public health to the environment.

“Our researchers, led by Professor Muhammad Imran at the University of Glasgow, are developing 5G technologies to facilitate remote health monitoring without invasive measurements and without the need for wearable sensors. They are also working to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions of cellular networks and are developing low-cost pop-up networks. These can be deployed quickly and efficiently during large sporting events or disaster scenarios to bring temporary connectivity to the area, strengthening Scotland’s resilience capacity.

“The University of Glasgow has been working with academic partners, including the University of Strathclyde, and Scottish Futures Trust on 5G and we are delighted that the Scottish Government’s 5G Strategy recognises the importance this technology will have in creating services and applications that will benefit our NHS, industry and people right across Scotland.”

Andrew McRae, Federation of Small Businesses Scotland’s policy chair, said: “Scotland needs to be in the digital fast lane because the next generation of mobile technologies have the potential to boost growth and drive innovation. 

“Three quarters of Scottish businesses say that digital technologies are important to their plans for future growth. But to deliver on this ambition, firms need access to the right skills and high quality digital infrastructure. For this reason, decision-makers in Scotland need to do everything they can to ensure Scotland is at the forefront of the 5G revolution. This new 5G strategy is a step in the right direction.”