New report from O2 argues next wave of mobile networks could deliver enormous environmental, efficiency, and cost savings
For years mobile connectivity has been touted as a clean technology. The dematerialisation of telecommunications networks, the digitalisation of the workplace, and the potential reduction in commuter numbers enabled by mobile connectivity all bring with them obvious and significant environmental gains. But according to a major new report from mobile operator O2, we have barely scratched the surface of the environmental and cost savings that will soon be offer.
The company this week published an analysis of the efficiency savings that could result from the national roll out of next generation 5G networks. It concluded the faster speed and universal connectivity promised by 5G could unlock many of the gains 'smart city' enthusiasts have been talking about for decades.
The report, entitled The value of 5G for cities and communities, suggests some of the biggest benefits could come with the deployment of low cost, but ultra-fast 5G sensors across the energy grid.
It argues 5G could prove integral to much of the functionality promised by smart grid technologies, enabling dynamic pricing, demand-side response services, intelligent energy storage, and smart electric vehicle (EV) charging. The report calculates this functionality could knock £145 a year off the average domestic energy bill and £1,600 a year off vehicle fuel costs by enabling the roll out of an extra 1.3 million EVs by 2025. In addition, a 5G enabled grid would save the UK economy £3.4bn a year by reducing the risk of blackouts and brownouts, the report claims, while also cutting carbon emissions by around 6.4 million tonnes a year.
However, it is not just in the energy sector where O2 is predicting major environmental savings as a result of a 5G network. The report calculates smart fridges that use mobile connectivity to let people know what food they already have will help cut food waste and curb costs for households by an estimated £236 a year. Similarly, smart sensors in bins promise to enable more efficient refuse collection that O2 reckons could trim £66 a year off council bills and potentially improve recycling rates.
In addition, there are hopes the successful trial of 5G enabled street lights by O2 parent company Telefonica in the Spanish cities of Malaga and Santander could maximise the energy efficiency savings already on offer from LED upgrades, delivering further emissions and cost savings.
O2 also envisages improved video conferencing and sensors playing a key role in optimising health, social care, and public transport services, reducing the need for in-person GP appointments, notifying rail networks of the need for maintenance upgrades ahead of failures, and improving traffic flow in real time.
"5G sensors on railway lines will drive improvements in predictive maintenance, reclaiming an estimated £440m in lost productivity for the UK economy and regaining the average rail commuter 2.6 hours a year," the report predicts. "Meanwhile, 5G-enabled road management systems, able to respond seamlessly to traffic volumes, will reduce the time spent stuck in traffic by 10 per cent for the UK's 5.6 million vehicle commuters. Commuters will also be better connected to street-level data via mobile journey planning apps linked to connected street furniture such as lamp posts and bus stops, helping them better plan journeys and avoid congested routes."
It is a compelling vision and one O2 and others in the technology community are convinced is closer than many businesses realise. Trials of 5G networks are already underway, including O2's plans alongside AEG to pilot the technology at The O2 venue in London. Meanwhile, Telefónica recently confirmed plans to turn the Spanish cities of Segovia and Talavera de la Reina into "5G living laboratories" over the next three years.
At the same time a raft of smart grid, consumer electronics, and IT giants are working on smart grid and smart city functionality that could be turbocharged by the emergence of genuinely universal mobile coverage.
Speaking at the launch of the report earlier this week, Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries Margot James said the government was committed to establishing the UK as "a world leader in 5G". "This report highlights the huge potential we have to get ahead and reap the benefits of this exciting new technology," she said. "We're already investing £25m in new testbeds across the UK that will pave the way for our 5G future and our work with industry will be vital to help us achieve our ambitions."
However, senior O2 executives stressed the benefits on offer from 5G were not an inevitability and would require unprecedented levels of cross-industry co-operation and co-ordination to be realised.
"Of all the ingredients that keep our economy and society moving, arguably top of the list is mobile," said O2 CEO, Mark Evans, in a statement. "Our report demonstrates how 5G technology, when it arrives, will provide unprecedented benefits for consumers, councils and cities alike. The enhanced connectivity on offer will make a real difference to people's lives and pockets. However none of these benefits are assured. We need a high level of collaboration to press ahead with the rollout and to hardwire 5G into the fabric of our cities."
His colleague Derek McManus, chief operating officer at the company, offered an even starker warning. "While 5G promises a range of unprecedented benefits, we should be clear that these won't be achieved without collective investment and collaboration," he said. "That means complete alignment from operators, public service providers, local authorities, landlords and technology companies to explore new opportunities for better connectivity and denser coverage."
The environmental and economic benefits on offer from smart city technologies remain as compelling as ever. The problem is that delivering the requisite level of cross-sectoral co-operation, infrastructure integration, and technological interoperability remains equally daunting.
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