5G is more than just another network to provide connectivity to all of your shiny distracting gadgets, before long it will become the connective fabric tying everything in our cities together.
A major technological shift is underway as the world begins to transition to new fifth-generation networks. Initially, this will focus on smartphone networks but will then move to support the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). This is expected to help achieve genuinely sustainable urban growth over the coming decades and will require mining vast datasets, providing a unique insight into cities and their citizens.
London will have intelligent technology retrofitted into the existing urban fabric, including fully integrated modes of transport and new devices coupled with a flexible network capability, all connected by 5G. This, in turn, will generate data on a scale never seen before, which through data analytics may bring significant social and economic benefits to our urban centres, such as traffic alleviation, new smart buildings, and intelligent energy management.
Despite the clear opportunities, the development of 5G is also currently shrouded in diplomatic uncertainty. With China’s Huawei leading the way in developing future network capabilities, there is resistance to its integration into western networks by the US, with perceived significant long-term security risks. The geopolitical tussle over the infrastructure is coming to a head this year with contracts currently being negotiated globally. The UK Government has controversially agreed a deal with Huawei to build ‘non-core parts’ of Britain’s network.
It is a crucial time for political leadership to define how new networks will influence the development of future cities. Urban planning should sit at the centre of this 5G rollout, harnessing the value of the interconnectivity of different systems, while still ensuring that it truly does deliver on its potential to support healthy sustainable communities. While the politics of the network contracts play out we need to be preparing for how it will be effectively installed into our urban environments.
The UK planning system needs to rise to the unique challenges that 5G deployment brings; enabling the retrofitting of buildings to deliver infrastructure capable of providing superfast network connections. There is a risk that current UK legalisation will unintentionally restrict its deployment. Notably, the Government announced yesterday that it will consult on proposed reforms to permitted development rights to support the 5G roll out.
The Mayor’s team at the GLA are currently developing a framework to own and control emerging ‘Gov Tech’ data streams to inform balanced decision making. This includes preparing for 5G by creating a pan-London bid for Urban Connected Communities Fund, developing strategies and a framework to deliver a new 5G standard for London.
5G has the potential to be one of the most significant technological innovations of the coming decade, facilitating a new approach to urban living. Planners should be optimistic about its capability to innovate and inform our decision making, whilst ensuring that there is a regulatory framework to safeguard the data created, and its interpretation is ultimately directed in the public interest.