Profit, people and planet

CWIC conference Chair and Real Wireless Managing Consultant Julie Bradford reflects on a show with a timely theme.

Wireless in Digital & Circular Economies may to some seem a rather dry topic for a conference, but the underlying theme of the recent Cambridge Wireless annual conference at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford was nothing less than the future of the planet – and how wireless can make it a better one at commercial, socio-economic and environmental levels.

No pressure on the wireless industry, then. Or on myself as conference chair. All we had to do was explain the importance of wireless to improving the future of just about everything and everyone – and to show that it could do so sustainably.

And this wasn’t just about delivering impressive soundbites. The Cambridge Wireless international conference is an annual event that attracts an audience that is both informed and demanding – as the Real Wireless team, which also supplied chairs and speakers in the shape of Simon Fletcher and Simon Saunders, were only too aware.

We knew, as did attendees, that wireless is an enabling technology for many industries and for delivering the operational insights central to the digital economy of the future. But, everyone wanted to know, can that be done sustainably?

Of course there is already an argument for wireless as an enabler of sustainability. The potential for wireless-led improvements in manufacturing, health, social care, media and entertainment – to name only a few – is undeniable. In the private sphere that could, for example, mean more efficient power use and less pollution, thanks to wireless-aided IoT. In the public sphere it extends not only to cities – where wireless-delivered public services can aid efficiency and limit waste – but also to hard-to-reach locations – where satellite connectivity can bring health and education services to people who would otherwise have to travel to access them.

In the UK, Belfast City Council acknowledges the important role wireless connectivity can play as part of investments in city redevelopment and regeneration. In fact we already know this from our advisory work with Belfast on this.

Liverpool 5G is another project that we have helped – this time with business case analysis – and another project that emphasises the significant social benefits of wireless. Ann Williams from Liverpool 5G also reminded us how in some cases new deployment approaches might be needed to ensure that these use cases don’t get overlooked in a mobile industry traditionally driven by market mechanisms and commercial pressures.  I was delighted that Ann  received the CWIC Connecting People Award on behalf of the Liverpool 5G team.

RW associate Simon Saunders kept the energy levels high right to the end of the day, with an enthralling debate on whether public value or private value should be prioritised in the deployment of wireless infrastructure.  Ann Williams’ winning streak continued with her team winning over the audience who voted 54% to 46% in favour of prioritising public value.

The debate highlighted very clearly that in deploying wireless infrastructure there is no clear-cut answer on whether public or private benefit should be prioritised and that a balance between these is required.  There was a clear message from the conference overall that increasingly users of wireless will need to work with the wireless industry to ensure that the right balance is struck across these to ensure that benefits, both commercial and socio-economic are maximised, and the sustainability of the industry is ensured from a commercial, socio-economic and environmental perspective.  This message of users and industry working together is one that of course has always been central to RW and seems more relevant now than ever

Thus wireless, we believe, can both benefit business and be a public good. But, as COP26 proves, that won’t be enough on its own.

That means wireless equipment, deployment and business practices need to positively impact sustainability. And this is indeed happening. Examples offered at the conference included software control on RF front-end design, which will influence the sustainable development of new generations of mobile phones. And the move towards sharing of network infrastructure assets will not only drive efficiency and cost savings but also be good for the environment – not least due to the potential positive impact on street clutter and placemaking.

During the session on the role of mobile networks in environmental sustainability that was chaired by RW CTO Simon Fletcher, there was acknowledgement of the sustained efforts of academia and industry to research and develop architectures and techniques to bare down on the power consumption of networks; whilst questioning whether consumers of telecoms services could be more informed of the environmental impact of their use.

More can – and will – be done. The eyes of the world are on an industry that could dominate the rest of the century. We need to prove – as Real Wireless has long believed we can – that wireless can deliver from a commercial, socio-economic and environmental perspective.

That means not just improving lives but doing so sustainably. Or, as Mike Biddle’s keynote pointed out, it’s about the need to balance profit, people and planet.