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UK government ploughs £3m into 5G test facility

Harwell Campus 5G research facility gets financial boost to assist development of advanced communications for terrestrial and satellite-based broadband networks

The UK government has announced funding to back a new testing facility aimed at allowing UK businesses to tap into the potential of national 5G and satellite technology.

The engineering hub, due for completion in 2021, will be built by IT and business consultancy CGI at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire and is being backed by more than £3m in government investment.

It is intended to provide a base for UK researchers and businesses to experiment and offers a facility that can show the benefits of hybrid 5G and satellite communications networks. The hope is that once the technology is demonstrated, the techniques can be rolled out to other businesses across the country.

Announcing the investment, the government said 5G connectivity was likely to “change the world”, and is considered the “next meteoric leap” in wireless communications. It pointed out that 5G networks’ intrinsic low latency had the potential to accelerate the green revolution needed to tackle climate change, paving the way for vehicles to swap data nearly instantly, aiding navigation.

In this regard, it cited the possible example of allowing a car to be able to begin to apply the brakes before a driver is aware of an accident.

“This year, staying connected has taken on a new, profound importance – from keeping in touch with loved ones and competing in Zoom quizzes, to helping us tackle Covid-19,” said science minister Amanda Solloway. “This new state-of-the-art facility, backed by government funding, will enable our brightest researchers and engineers to better understand how 5G can help connect us all, creating new business opportunities while delivering green efficiencies across the UK.”

The new facility will also develop software that allows satellite networks, including low Earth orbit (LEO) networks, to be integrated into terrestrial public and private communications networks. This, said the government, could create new business opportunities for application developers and mobile network providers.

It added that space and tech companies are focusing on 5G because it allows for a broad range of applications across industries, including internet of things (IoT) technology and augmented reality, all of which can be applied to manufacturing, public safety, enterprise and communications software, and entertainment and gaming.

The result, the government said, would be a “quick, affordable way of bringing a fast data network to places where cables will not reach, from remote villages to disaster zones”.

Such an outcome is also what the government is looking for from its OneWeb project. On 23 November, the UK government/Bharti Global joint-venture LEO broadband satellite communications company emerged from US Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and satisfied relevant regulatory approvals to operate.

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The project aims to implement a constellation of 650 LEO satellites with a network of global gateway stations and a range of user terminals to provide an affordable, fast, high-bandwidth and low-latency communications service, connected to IoT devices, and a pathway for mass adoption of 5G services.

The new testing centre is also being backed by a European Space Agency (ESA) contract, and as part of the development, CGI is working with BT, Avanti Communications and the University of Surrey on a project to see how it can connect rural communities to 5G in the most affordable way possible.

“ESA’s novel 5G hub will showcase how space technology enables connectivity, partnering with industry to foster innovation in the realms of autonomous vehicles and smart cities, and to enable machines to exchange information with one another via the IoT,” said Elodie Viau, director of telecommunications and integrated applications at ESA.

“Adding satellites to existing terrestrial 5G infrastructure is essential to ensure a reliable and safe telecommunications network that supports such connectivity, which, in turn, promotes a seamless and more environmentally friendly experience. Investing in space improves life on Earth.”

Shaun Stretton, senior vice-president for UK and Australia space control and information solutions at CGI, added: “This exciting facility will bring closer the potential benefits of satellite integration into 5G networks. Through our work with the ESA and industry partners, including the development of our Carnot-Sat hybrid network planning tool, it became apparent that the ability to demonstrate the benefits of integrated 5G and satellite communications networks would help to accelerate the delivery of 5G in the UK and across Europe.”

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