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Building a 5G city: Bristol’s valuable lessons for the UK’s digital future

West of England Combined Authority is taking part in DCMS’s 5G Testbeds and Trials programme, exploring applications for tourism and entertainment. We find out how it is applying its learnings to life in Bristol and Bath

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Showcasing the potential of 5G

On one weekend in July 2019, more than 250,000 people descended on Bristol to enjoy the annual Harbour Festival. Now in its 48th year, the music and community festival – which started to help save the city’s historic docks from redevelopment – spreads across the city centre and in 2019 included live performances from bands such as New Order and The Specials.

Also new this year was a 5G mobile network, or rather a trial version of one, designed to support a 360° live video viewing experience and help make the event safer and more accessible.

It was set up and run through the University of Bristol, co-ordinating various technology suppliers, and funded with part of a multimillion-pound award from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) 5G Testbeds and Trials programme, made to the West of England Combined Authority (WECA) in 2018.

WECA was created in 2016 to deliver effective joined-up governance across the local authorities of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and Northeast Somerset, and it has already put its 5G cash to good use. Towards the end of 2018, it ran an augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) trial at the historic Roman bath complex in Bath, telling the story of the ancient site using 3D animations produced by Wallace and Gromit creator Aardman Animations.

At the Harbour Festival, WECA wanted to learn lessons it could apply to the local digital economy, says the mayor, Tim Bowles, who has put digital at the forefront of the region’s recently launched local industrial strategy.

Bowles believes digital is the next step in the region’s dynamic economic history. “Going back centuries, we’ve always had a successful economy based on innovation and new ideas; we’ve been building that for generations,” he says.

“The DCMS trials were a perfect vehicle for us to be able to show our USP about how we do things differently. We have the most productive digital economy outside London, employing tens of thousands, so we’re ideally placed. It plays into the DNA of what we’re about as a region.”

Bowles makes a good point – with its prime position near the mouth of the River Severn enabling Bristol to exploit trading routes into and out of the UK, the city’s economic vitality stretches back centuries. Its businessmen and industrialists helped kick-start Britain’s industrial revolution in the 19th century, and in the 20th century helped in the birth of the British aviation industry – it remains home to high-tech engineering firms such as Airbus, BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

In the second half of the 20th century, Bristol developed a thriving media culture with the likes of Aardman and the BBC’s world-renowned Natural History Unit. The first two decades of the 21st century saw the emergence of its tech startup and incubator scene, many of which are taking part in the Bristol is Open smart city project.

Multi-faceted network

But back to 5G. What actually happened at the Harbour Festival? Much of the success of the recent trial rests on the shoulders of Dimitra Simeonidou, a professor at the University of Bristol and director of its Smart Internet Lab, who has been working on 5G networks for some time.

In fact, Simeonidou led on the creation of a functioning 5G testbed in Bristol in the spring of 2018, almost 18 months before the first commercial launches, when the university set up a trial showcase in the city’s Millennium Square called Layered Realities.

After this, she extended the testbed to cover a wider area, including the university, the harbourside area, and Temple Meads station. Work is also under way to establish backhaul fibre connections between the two trial networks in Bristol and Bath, creating a twin-city testbed run by Simeonidou’s team, which operates the 5G services and provides access to the core network and cloud, built on Nokia technology.

“The deployment for the Harbour Festival used the University of Bristol network and our own fibre, spanning from my lab where the 5G core and cloud are based, down to Millennium Square where we have a mix of radio access technologies, including Wi-Fi, [4G] LTE-Advanced, and 5G new radio [NR] running in the 3.5GHz spectrum, which is provided by Nokia again,” says Simeonidou.

“Across the harbourside, we also have our own installation at M-Shed, consisting of millimetre-wave technology provided by CCS.

“Quite a lot of what we are doing relies on mobile edge computing, so we have deployed mobile compute capabilities running on OpenStack”
Dimitra Simeonidou, University of Bristol

“In addition, quite a lot of what we are doing relies on mobile edge computing, so we have deployed mobile compute capabilities running on OpenStack. What has enabled a lot of 5G use cases is not the radio so much, but mobile edge – you can achieve very, very low-latency, location-aware performance to your application, even on Wi-Fi, providing you have streamlined your mobile edge compute service.”

To extend 5G coverage across the whole festival area, local network slicing expert Zeetta Networks came on board. Its main product, NetOS, is a software controller that offers “full network visibility, control and management through a single pane of glass”, according to its boilerplate.

NetOS works by splicing a combination of network standards – such as fixed, wireless, low-power IoT (internet of things) and so on – to create one virtualised network topology that can then be sliced to meet the user’s capacity and application requirements.

In this case, the team deployed what is best described as a popup network, essentially a Wi-Fi box that connects to the millimetre-wave technology via a Layer 2 edge. This, says Simeonidou, enabled the team to extend connectivity to parts of the festival that the main network could not touch.

“I believe we had three repeat boxes that they [Zeetta] were connecting to our millimetre-wave mesh network to cover three stages, one in Millennium Square, one in Queen Square and one at the harbourside,” she says. “What we provided to these three popups was access to both mobile edge compute and cloud over the fibre connection.”

Bristol’s ‘inclusion zone’

So what was it all for? Zeetta Networks CEO Vassilis Seferidis explains: “Most of us are familiar with the idea that when you have a congested location, such as a train station or crowded concert, the network starts to fail. 5G is designed to deal with that level of hyper-congestion, which was what we wanted to demonstrate at the Harbour Festival.

“If you want people to use your technology at a major social or cultural event, you have to offer something of value. What we were keen to do at the Harbour Festival was provide a new and innovative service that made sense to people going to a cultural event.”

The concept that the testbed partners developed to explore this is called an “inclusion zone”, says Simeonidou. This recognises that large festivals generate dense and highly mobile crowds of people – and both disabled and non-disabled people experience different challenges related to this.  Just by enabling people to stream 360° video to their smartphone devices, many of these accessibility challenges can be partly overcome.

“We created a service that allowed people at one stage to see what was happening at other stages or locations, to decide whether they were missing out or better off staying where they were,” says Seferidis. “This also meant that people at the back of the crowd could see what was happening on stage. At very large venues, the ability to have a ringside seat is invaluable, to keep people engaged and enjoying themselves.”

“It was incredible, because you could run it on your own smartphone, select in real time which stage you wanted to access, and see what was happening,” adds Simeonidou.

“An application like this works as an inclusion tool, but can also be used by people to see what’s happening at different parts of the festival and make their way there,” she says.

“It was incredible, because you could run it on your own smartphone, select in real time which stage you wanted to access, and see what was happening”
Dimitra Simeonidou, University of Bristol

As well as enhancing the festival experience for the general public, WECA’s Bowles highlights an important public safety component.

“What we tried to be sure to focus on in this instance was how to highlight access routes for people with different mobility needs, and be able to get real-time information that allows staff to help people on a bespoke, individual basis, but also to get a sense of the bigger picture and use the network for wider public safety aspects,” he says.

From a technological point of view, said Seferidis, the festival trial proved that 5G networks can indeed cope with hyper-congestion.

“We aimed to show that the network could continue to perform well with more than 500 concurrent users, and 2,000 users in an application across the three-day event,” he says. “We experienced 783 concurrent users and nearly 4,000 users over the weekend in a very small test area. We showed 5G could work at scale.”

And there is more to come, adds Simeonidou: “We ran loads of tests to identify KPIs [key performance indicators], break points, and so on – at one point we ran out of IP addresses and the network went down temporarily – but these are all things we are learning because we’d never done a trial at this density before.

“The full results aren’t out yet because we’re analysing the data, but it is real data that will be useful to evaluate network performance at high loads. Our vendors, and DCMS, want to see the results because the lessons can be applied to other 5G networks being deployed.”

5G and the local industrial strategy

Zeetta’s Seferidis adds: “Bristol and the South West is a major tourist destination, and our use cases have focused on enabling the tourism industry, helping to make this city a more attractive and safe location to visit. Real-world use cases that have an impact on a major source of income and wealth for a city really validates the programme, and it helps Bristol to move forward as a leading location for technology and for tourism.

“For Zeetta Networks, research and development as well as delivery are important to us. When there are opportunities for us to showcase our technology and support the city, it’s important we take them.

“As a technology company, we recognise that there’s a world beyond Bristol. It’s important for us to showcase things in Bristol with a view to replicating and duplicating that in other locations, across the UK, Europe, and globally.”

For Bowles, taking part in the 5G Testbeds and Trials programme is helping him to build an evidence base to show how 5G may affect the local economy. This evidence informed much of WECA’s Local Industrial Strategy – one of the first such strategies to be published in the UK.

“It lets us identify what makes us different and what we do so well,” he says. “In doing that, it also lets us identify things to focus on and work on, regionally, with government, and internationally, to attract investment.

“What we know we do well is collaborate. We have four universities. We have seen our startups and incubators are successful. We have shown we can work cross-sector and within verticals more collaboratively.

“What we also know, as part of the National Industrial Strategy, is how the UK can address the challenges we have around productivity using collaborative and innovative technology.”

“Showcasing 5G at public events has helped people appreciate that this goes far beyond simply upgrading your handset”
Tim Bowles, West of England mayor

Beyond the private sector, there are benefits for Bristol’s civic life and improvements to citizen services. Although Bristol is one the UK’s richer core cities, it still experiences the same socio-economic problems as any other.

“We have an innovative sector around autonomous mobility that is looking at using disruptive technology to provide different forms of public transport access,” says Bowles. “We are looking at 5G coming into the home to help people stay in their homes as they live longer. Bringing things like that to life makes a real difference to people.”

Simeonidou agrees, adding: “WECA’s strategy is very exciting. It commits to support and develop a set of living labs in the region, and one of the aspects of these labs is environments like the 5G Testbed, which supports wider innovation.

“We have a lot of activity around aerospace [in Bristol] and, of course, 5G is critical for Industry 4.0, so we have a lot of accumulated knowledge that we can apply to that.

“The second sector that is important to us is the creative industries – we work a lot with the BBC, Aardman, and a lot of new media companies looking at content and gaming. Many of these companies are using our platform as we speak to see how they can evolve their projects to take advantage of commercial 5G.”

Bowles sums up the essence of what WECA is trying to achieve from using 5G to support its digital ambitions: “What we’ve been trying to do is prove how the new technology is not, as it is perceived by some, just one notch up from 4G, and that it will go far beyond – as someone once put it to me – streaming YouTube on the bus.

“This is about a whole new set of technologies. And showcasing 5G at public events has helped people appreciate that this goes far beyond simply upgrading your handset. When we have real-world examples of how technology helps individual groups of people in terms of accessibility and quality of life, that young people can see the fruits of it in terms of skills and future career opportunities, that’s where 5G will start to make a change. Once we show that, we’ll start to motor.”

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