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Mishcon Academy: Purpose Matters - 5G and its potential for accelerating the transition to sustainable business

Posted on 02 July 2021

In the latest of our Purpose Matters Digital Academy series, Alexander Rhodes, Head of Mishcon Purpose, spoke with Annette Nabavi, Non-Executive Director on the board of Maintel Holdings plc, an AIM-listed unified communications services business, and Director of Women in Telecoms and Technology (WiTT).

They were also joined by Mark Deem, Partner in the Innovation Department and specialist in technology, media and telecoms (TMT) litigation, contentious privacy and cyber security issues and financial services disputes, and Niall Roche, Head of Distributed Systems Engineering within MDRxTECH and member of the UCL Institute for Communications and Connected Systems.

The panellists discussed the implications of 5G and its potential for accelerating the transition to sustainable business. Discussion topics included:

  • Will 5G just allow us to do more of the same faster, or enable the development new technologies?
  • What opportunities might 5G present for businesses seeking to increase efficiencies and reduce environmental impacts?
  • What challenges might the technology bring?
  • How and when should businesses be engaging with 5G?

The session was recorded live on Monday 14 June and forms part of our Purpose Matters Digital Academy series.

Alex Rhodes

Welcome everyone.  Thank you for joining us.  I’m Alex Rhodes, Head of Mishcon Purpose and I’ll be your host today.  So, today we’re going to talk about the potential of 5G to do more of the same faster, particularly focusing on the Sustainability Agenda and the immediate focus on radical change that we have to meet pressing obligations like the fight against Climate Change.  I’m really excited today to be joined by Annette Nabavi, Non-Executive Director on the Board of Maintel Holdings Plc, which is an AIM listed unified communication services business and she is joined by Mark Deem, who is a Partner in our Innovation Department at Mishcon de Reya.  They’re joined together also, by Niall Roche and Niall is Head of Distributed Systems Engineering at MDRxTECH, which is an MDR Mishcon Group Company.  Annette, thank you so much for joining us.  I, I asked you whether you’d mind starting off by giving us a short presentation explaining what 5G is, how it differs from 4G and 3G and how it had been rolled out in the UK so we can understand it. 

Annette Nabavi

So, looking first at the evolutionary path that we’ve gone through, basically one or two of you might remember the very, very old clunky 1G, basic voice, really clunky phone through to what we’ve now got which is 4G.  So, that went through 2G digital services, 3G, some mobile broadband, voice and data, allowed us to do the internet.  4G, slightly better with HD streaming and 5G which will provide, as Alex said, much, much higher bandwidth, much faster, allowing much more real time control and it’s a lot more energy-efficient as a system in general.  So, what does that actually mean?  What it really means is a lot more data.  So, very, very significantly enhanced mobile broadband which will improve the customer experience most definitely, it will allow us to have a lot more connected devices, much faster connection speeds and also things like virtual or augmented reality.  The second thing it allows is massive machine-type communication.  So, it’s a machine to machine internet of things.  One to many, many to one and it’s really looking at things like e-health, a lot of experiments around transport logistics, environmental monitoring, very important from a sustainability point of view, Smart energy networks, again very significant when we come to the reduction of CO2 and then finally, the low-latency piece allows instant response which gives you the autonomous vehicles, it gives you much better control over groups of lorries moving to get more efficiency, it allows drone delivery and a lot of smart manufacturing.  So, already you can begin to see the sorts of interesting new things that will be enabled by 5G and will therefore allow us to be… to move further along the sustainability agenda. 

Alex Rhodes

Whenever anyone’s talking about bringing in some new technology and broadening bandwidth, there’s sort of concern about more energy being consumed, more emissions.  Can you talk to us maybe a little bit about that from your experience?

Niall Roche

Sure so there has been some research been conducted by Nokia and Ericsson and it shows some pretty promising results actually at about 90% energy savings in transferring the same amount of data over 4G.  So, automatically we can start to see that there’s cost benefits both in terms of battery life for your phone and also for the amount of power that’s used for the base stations and all of the other supporting infrastructure.  So, at least from a sustainability perspective that certainly shows some promise compared to previous generations.  It’s a hard one to quantify because some of the antennae they’re reusing.  It’s a different antenna mechanism where they’re putting multiple antennae on the same mast, etcetera.  So, it’s not necessarily comparing like with like but with the combination of radio frequency improvements, better utilisation of the spectrum and also the general energy-saving mechanisms that have been put in place by having smaller antennae and in some cases not having to use as much power to transmit over a longer distance. 

Alex Rhodes

And that’s presumably sort of per unit efficiency saving?  But…

Niall Roche

Yeah mega-bites, basically.  So, the number of mega-bites that you download there’s certain watts associated with it so it’s about 90% fewer watts per mega-bites transmitted. 

Alex Rhodes

Mark, you’ve worked with the telecoms industry through the whole of your legal career.  5G will allow as I understand it, the decentralisation of data processing to the edge of the network.  What are the implications and the legal implications of this?

Mark Deem

As lawyers, I think we have a duty to try to encourage the technology to develop in the best possible way it can, rather than try to direct the way that technology should develop.  What that tends to mean, however is we’re in a situation where we constantly are having to deal with old laws to deal with new technologies and we have to be looking at the way the laws are at the moment.  With 5G however, I think we have a real step change and that’s going to be very important for the legal community to really get on board with that because this is not an evolution as such, it’s more of a revolution because this is not just about talking about things becoming fast or greater bandwidth.  With that greater speed, with that greater bandwidth, we can unlock a whole host of new technologies and that’s going to require us to be very nimble as lawyers to work out what is the appropriate legal framework that we have in place, how that legal framework is going to support the technology and also to make sure that as we get more dependent on the technology, we are putting in place legal rights, responsibilities and liabilities that support that.  Now, you mention artificial intelligence so what really unlocks a lot of this is the fact that the processing can now take place what’s called ‘On the edge’, so rather than be quite inefficient and have a lot of technology and a lot of processing taking place in a centralised way, there can be a lot of processing that can be done on our handsets, on our local devices and that can then be fed into a wider network to provide different facilities, different opportunities if you like.  That will really unlock things like Smart Cities.  Actually connecting everything in that way creates huge opportunities but it creates potential risk as well. 

Alex Rhodes

How does the regulation of this come together Mark?  Because it’s almost suddenly expanding horizontally as well as vertically. 

Mark Deem

So, in relation to AI, you can’t just think about legal you have to think about the ethical and the regulatory and how that all interacts with the legal.  So, when we’re putting together a framework and looking at what framework should be put in place, you’re not just looking at the legal response, you’re having to answer questions about the ethical response we have.  But what it all distils down to as far as I can tell, is trust and transparency.  That if we’re going to regulate and have a response to these new technologies, we have to have an answer to how we can get the public, society, to trust that technology and one of the biggest things here is going to be well, not sustainability itself should be hard wired into discussions concerning sort of the ethics that we try to incorporate and bring within the regulatory framework we’re trying to set out.  We do end up with a bit of a chicken and an egg situation here because how can you get that trust without transparency and how can you get the transparency without trust?  But that is something that has to be wrestled with, I think, by the regulators because without those two – without the trust and the transparency – you won’t be able to unlock the real benefits this technology can have.  And without the benefits of this technology, I think we’re going to end up possibly risking implementing it in the wrong way, which is then going to then drive all sorts of inefficiencies which cuts to the heart of the sustainability question and whether or not it’s going to create more problems than perhaps we would desire. 

Niall Roche

I think it’s important that we don’t repeat some of the mistakes of earlier generations but I do remember the 2 and 3G early days.  There were some serious usability issues from people who were subscribed to premium rate services that they couldn’t get out of.  There was a lot of bill-shock and it really wasn’t a great industry at that point and eventually, obviously regulations came in place and the operators – who had been making quite a lot of money from this – finally started to clamp down on this and while those problems don’t exist anymore, it does show that if the regulations are not in place, then people will innovate not necessarily in the way that we would hope and it’s important to ensure that trust is preserved. 

Alex Rhodes

How should businesses be thinking about engaging with 5G from a sustainability point of view, do you think?

Annette Navabi

So, the first thing I think is for companies to start thinking about their…  the way that they, as a company, want to move towards net zero.  But where they’re in areas that can really take advantage of 5G with one of the use-cases that’s already been put forward, then I think they need to move as fast as they can to those and most of the studies suggest that energy, healthcare, transportation are areas which will really benefit from 5G and from efficiencies and it’s got to be proactive.  It clearly has to match what they’re doing as a business but there’s plenty of opportunities out there. 

Alex Rhodes

In terms of you know, what it is and what it isn’t and how quickly it’s coming down the pike and… what do we expect to see?

Niall Roche

It depends which version of 5G, I guess.  It’s a general umbrella term for a number of technologies.  But certainly on the sustainability aspect, we had a research project with a researcher at UCL involving testing seismic activity near a dam in China and that involved people hiking out, testing to see if there was any movement in the ground etcetera.  It was high-risk work and it was obviously time-consuming as well.  So, this mesh of 5G and non-5G applications can really allow us to have a situation where a person doesn’t need to go to a physical location and incur all of the costs and expense and overheads and in some cases, safety aspects of that too.  And again, it has been mentioned, it’s not necessarily just the mobile network providers.  There are private networks, one of the test beds in Worcestershire for example, is looking at IOT inside a factory environment.  It’s far more efficient than Wi-Fi for automated production lines.  We had a company that were interested in using 5G for monitoring a production line with infrared cameras and could immediately see what a very low level of delay, if there was a problem on the production line and immediately shut it down.  So, there really are quite a number of use-cases that are out there. 

Alex Rhodes

Certainly, we’re going to have a lot more data coming in.  Sometimes from unmanned internet of things, sensors and potentially we’re going to be monitoring things that we haven’t been able to monitor before.  Is that going to unlock a whole load of different issues around… if people aren’t there, if the computers and the AI is doing the monitoring and being the evidence source for events?

Mark Deem

With the explosion in the amount of data that’s going to be available, trying to unpick and reverse engineer through that data, what might be the root cause of a problem and making sure you have a complete dataset in order to be able to assess whether or not you’ve actually identified the key source, is necessarily going to be a huge problem for litigators in the future. However, because of the technologies that are being unlocked at the moment and coming on-stream, I actually think we are getting ourselves into a game of technological cat-and-mouse.  And just as quickly as we have these one problems that are presented to us in one context, I suspect that the technologies themselves will come along to enable us to try to solve that particular problem. 

Alex Rhodes

How should stakeholders – but how should businesses in particular – be engaging with how 5G is developing?

Annette Navabi

From a technology company point of view, you’re looking at ways to ensure that you don’t get left behind, you’re not behind the curve.  From a company that is doing other things, manufacturing, healthcare, social services, agriculture, you’ll be looking at the ways you can incorporate it into the way that you do business to make it better, make it more efficient; more sustainable and potentially you know, much safer. 

Mark Deem

The one thing that it is important to think about as a business in terms of efficiency and sustainability of course, is that just because a technology allows you to do it, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the sort of line that you necessarily want to go down.  And obviously we have to also be aware of the big issues that I think we’re going to have coming in the future, which is for example coverage issues and also technology poverty.  Can we afford that technology?  And as employers, as businesses, I think we have to be very aware that there may be some of our workforce who don’t have access to the technology or the connectivity or perhaps cannot afford it and making sure that we don’t go down one path to totally change the way our business operates which may not be efficient or effective but might actually exclude some of the workforce along the way.  So, I think it’s being sensitive to all those issues. 

Alex Rhodes

I think that’s an excellent place to stop.  So, Annette, thank you.  Mark, Niall, always a pleasure and thank you so much everybody for joining us. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.   To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.   

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