Former science and universities minister David Willetts today said the UK government needs to work closely with China on the development of 5G standards, pointing to telecommunications giant Huawei as a Chinese company that is making particularly strong inroads in the emerging mobile network.

The announcement comes as other Western governments, such as those in the US and Australia, continue to shun Huawei over fears that the firm has ties with the Chinese government that could be used for spying. 

Speaking at the 5G Huddle conference in London, Willetts said: “I would like to see the UK play a crucial role in standard setting. We’re already doing some of that. But if we work closely with allies, such as in Europe and in China, we really can set standards. 

“I know from trade missions and visits to China and Huawei that the Chinese are very keen to work with us in trying to set the standards for the future.”  

It is envisaged that 5G, set to be rolled out around 2020, will have the potential to enable the internet of things phenomena, a multibilion pound market, as it will be able to provide the bandwidths and speeds necessary to support trillions of connected devices.  

“That’s what caught imagination in government…in BIS,DCMS, and right up to Number 10,” said Willetts.

Dr Chin-Li, chief scientist of wireless technologies at the China Mobile Research Institute, said: “We need a lot of help from everybody to figure out if it's possible [to deploy 5G] by the target date of 2020." 

Setting global standards will help ensure interoperability between future networks and devices, according to the chair of the EU’s 5GPPP organisation (5G Infrastructure Public-Private Partnership), Dr Werner Mohr.  

Government institutions driving 5G

Willetts said there are a number of government institutions that will play a “distinctive role” in driving forward the development of 5G. They include the yet-to-be-opened Turing Institute, Tech City UK and the Connected Digital Economy (CDE) Catapult Centre.  

He said the Turing Institute will do upstream work on the maths and algorithms needed for 5G, while Tech City UK will play a more promotional role. 

But it was the future city demonstator projects being done through the Technology Strategy Board's CDE Catapult Centre that Willetts chose to focus on.

For example, in Birmingham, sensors have been deployed that monitor the temperature of roads and pavements to inform gritting companies when they need to grit. Meanwhile, in Glasgow, sensors were deployed during the Commonwealth Games to analyse the flow of people and in Bristol there is a push on to get more real time information on energy use. 

Willetts concluded by saying that privacy and security risks need to be addressed if 5G and the internet of things are to be rolled out successfully in the UK. 

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