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Wales well placed to benefit from roll out of 5G programme

This article first appeared in the Western Mail

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, investors, journalists and commentators competed to identify the next Big Thing: is it the Foldimate laundry folder (“makes folding laundry fun”) or the Smartbelt (monitors your waist circumference over time)?

Both generated column inches but the real buzz was in anticipating the arrival of 5G. Remember when you’d use your mobile phone just to call someone? That was 2G. 3G gave us phones to access data, connecting us with people in a different way. 4G gave us all of that only faster.

5G will be different. It is less about connecting people and more about interconnecting people with things. Vastly improved speed and coverage will also allow millions of devices to be connected to each other simultaneously.  That enables the “Internet of Things” delivering near real-time global exchange of information between multiple connected devices.

Wales is well-placed for these developments.  It has an expert group, chaired by Professor Simon J Gibson CBE, working on a 5G programme looking to position Wales within the wider UK 5G ecosystem. Cardiff has been named by mobile network provider EE as one of the six UK cities where 5G will be rolled out this year, enabling it to be one of the most connected cities in the UK. The UK government estimates that 5G could increase Britain’s GDP by £173bn between 2020 and 2030. Wales aims to secure at least 10% of this, so the economic gains could be significant as well as the benefits of providing a connectivity boost in rural and semi-rural communities.

That creates a clear opportunity for Wales’ farming, food and drink industry. Food and drink already contributes up to 7% of Welsh GVA. Welsh Government aims to increase the sector’s sales to an ambitious £7 billion by 2020 – something that the successful high-street retailer Greggs cannot do alone – albeit it seems to be trying. In response, industry leaders are promoting the uptake of the latest technologies to improve product and process development, packaging, distribution, and waste management. It is likely that land-based industry support initiatives like Welsh Government’s Agora programme will be supporting a move towards the same in the SME economy upon which Wales is so heavily reliant. The challenge will then be for the newly formed Food and Drink Sector Council to secure the Sector Deal it has tabled with Government and ensure it makes the most of 5G investment in the UK.

So, what can 5G do for the food industry that previous “Gs” could not? For one, it will enable the end-to-end food supply chain to respond to near real-time product data. Chips (micro of course) and coding in smart packaging will be able to communicate with a local hub e.g. on a shelf in a shop enabling companies to know which products are selling, where, how fast and when. This information can be used to get the right products in front of the right consumers, at the right time to optimise sales. Connected to loyalty cards we could see shelves stocked with products for people who shop on a Saturday over those who shop on a Thursday night. The same smart packaging could monitor product temperatures, reporting it to the store so that they can take action to manage risk of bacterial build up or simply keep fesh products at their best.

5G also makes it possible to track products more accurately between farm and fork, improving production and distribution efficiencies. It can also provide further assurance of traceability and provenance (remember the horse-meat scandal!). PA’s own Global Innovation and Technology Centre in Cambridge has already prototyped a just-in-time fresh food distribution system. It provides a range of sealed containers for products selected at home and delivered in temperature-controlled units straight to the customer’s fridge. This underlines the endless possibilities of tracking consumer data to ensure food quantities reflect patterns of use and for people to check that they have what is needed for the next meal and know that the reusable smart packaging helps them avoid over-buying and reduce food waste.

These are not just futuristic dreams. Ocado has already developed a private mobile network to enable them to coordinate thousands of their picking robots at their Andover warehouse. They could not use Wi-Fi due to problems with interference, so they developed a proprietary wireless communications technology. However, 5G might remove the need for these bespoke networks.

The critical question is always where will the money for these developments come from? Network providers and governments have allocated significant investment for 5G. UK mobile operators are expected to collectively invest a further £1 billion per annum in addition. Yet customers will be reluctant to pay more, even for faster connection speeds. Providers will have to be more flexible in their pricing approach to ensure affordability does not become a barrier to 5G adoption.

Another challenge lies in the fact that 97% of the UK food and drink industry are SMEs. Championing collaboration between providers, industry and academia to help them to pilot, test and mainstream existing, emerging and future technologies needs action across the sector.

It is also important to recognise that the real gains from new technology will depend on the ability of employees and leaders to be agile and embrace the importance of technology and data analytics. These are not qualities naturally aligned to the food and drink sector, but it will need to make sure that some of the 140,000 extra people it will need are those who can interpret the high volume of data from 5G enabled smart packaging and products.

All this underlines that food and drink companies need to prepare now for a 5G enabled future. Perhaps this is already part of Greggs’ plan to stay ahead in the high-street.

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Contact the technology & innovation management team