What are 5G Testbeds?

13 November 2018

5g speed

The 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme is a government initiative announced in autumn 2017 that has already led to the creation of a UK 5G network for test purposes, a national 5G innovation network to promote and co-ordinate research into 5G technologies and use cases, and a number of focused testbeds. More projects are in the planning stage.

The government has committed significant funding to the programme which is being matched by local organisations and private companies. The aim is to put the UK at the forefront of the development of 5G technologies, services and applications, to drive innovation and economic benefit at home as well as export opportunities for UK business.

Why are testbeds needed?

The rationale behind 5G testbeds is simple. Testing and proving grounds are needed because 5G will utilise entirely new technologies than previous mobile networks and will spawn completely new applications and services that will spill over into ever facet of our lives and environment. Every mobile operator and equipment manufacturer on the planet is in a rat race to develop 5G technologies and the UK cannot afford to be left behind.

The aim of the government’s 5G Testbeds and Trials (5GTT) Programme is to put the UK at the forefront of 5G, by accelerating development of 5G technologies as well as proving the use cases and business models. The UK should therefore benefit from early development of technologies and applications that can be exported, as well as the underlying economic benefits 5G is expected to deliver through swift commercial deployment at home.

Government involvement is expected to lead to a more co-ordinated and standards-based nationwide research effort to make the best use of available resources. It will also mean that UK SMEs will not be left out in the cold through early access to incubator programmes and technology demonstrators, both for developers and those wanting to benefit from 5G technologies. The public sector is contributing significant funding to a variety of projects, which is being matched by private sector contributions.

What is the 5GTT Programme?

The government first announced plans for 5G testbeds and trials in the 2016 Autumn Statement. In the 2017 Autumn Budget the Chancellor announced a four-year 5G Testbeds and Trials (5GTT) Programme, a key part of the government’s 5G strategy that aims to support technology trials and deployment pilots to stimulate the development of 5G use cases and business models. It is one of two programmes that will share £740 million in funding from 2017-18 to 2021-22 (the other being the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Programme). The funding will come from the new National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) to boost the UK’s digital infrastructure and forms part of the government’s wider 5G strategy.

There are multiple strands to the programme which are outlined in detail below.

Following on from the 2017 Autumn Budget, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) created a new supporting Centre of 5G Expertise to ensure that the development of 5G capabilities across the country is co-ordinated (as well as with organisations including UK Research and Innovation and the Government Digital Service, GDS) and meets government objectives. It has three key objectives:

  • To stimulate market development and deployment of 5G technology and infrastructure in the UK
  • To create new opportunities for businesses, develop capability and skills, and encourage inward investment
  • To ensure the UK secures an early mover advantage as future 5G products, services and applications evolve.

The testbeds themselves are designed to help industry understand the challenges involved in deploying new 5G technologies, and test 5G applications to prove the various use cases as well as move ideas towards commercial viability.

The 2017 Autumn Budget also committed the government to investing “a further” £160 million from the NPIF in new 5G infrastructure, although it transpired this was to come from the already announced amount.


In July 2017 the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), Bristol University and King’s College London were awarded £16 million to develop a 5G test network in the UK, the first step towards the creation of the National 5G Innovation Network which had been announced in March 2017 as part of the Budget.

Each university would create three small-scale mobile networks which would combine to form the test network. Each network would incorporate elements expected to be in commercial 5G networks, such as mobile signal receivers and transmitters as well as the technology to handle 5G signals.

Each university would contribute their specific expertise around 5G. The 5GIC, which led the project, contributed 5G radio technologies and a fully virtualised mobile core network for enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) and Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC). Bristol University deployed 5G capabilities in its Smart City and Smart Campus testbeds, part of the Bristol is Open joint venture between the university and city council. It also contributed software defined networking (SDN) technologies and aimed to focus on media, gaming and transport applications. King’s College London’s work encompassed 5G tactile internet developments with internet of skills applications.

The 5GUK network (also known as 5GUK Hub) was demonstrated at Mobile World Congress in February 2018 and completed a month later. It was the world’s first end-to-end 5G network. It is integrated at the system level and connected across the three sites, with sufficient capability and capacity for tests and trials of 5G technologies and advanced applications in a real-world environment.

It has already been used to demonstrate a variety of applications, including a robotic football player, interactive entertainment in Bristol, and a connected musical performance from artists in two different countries.

It is now open for business, to be used to trial 5G applications and technologies, including other projects within the 5GTT programme.

Further reading: What is Tactile Internet? (link: https://5g.co.uk/guides/what-is-the-tactile-internet/)

UK 5G Innovation Network

Following a competition that opened in October 2017, in December 2017 DCMS awarded the contract to create and deliver the national 5G Innovation Network to a consortium led by Cambridge Wireless. Other key partners are the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN, part of Innovate UK) and the TM Forum, with associate partners Digital Catapult (a DCMS body), Real Wireless Ltd and DG Cities Ltd.

The UK5G Innovation Network (known simply as UK5G) launched in March 2018 to promote the research, collaboration and commercial application of 5G in the UK. It aims to facilitate and encourage the engagement and co-ordination of organisations working on 5G in the UK. A senior national advisory board steers its activities and advises the 5GTT Programme, including providing feedback from industry and advising on potential future of areas of focus.

Phase 1 Projects

In October 2017 the government opened the first competition for up to £25 million of funding under the 5GTT Programme. Under the terms of the competition, DCMS would provide grant funding of between £2 million and £5 million to individual programmes, but would also consider a larger scale project with a bigger grant funding requirement and longer delivery period. Applications had to be made by consortia comprising a minimum of two participants. For companies, the maximum amount of grant funding would be 40-60% of the project cost, depending on the size of the business. For research and public sector organisations, a maximum of 30% of the project costs would be grant funded. Successful applications will be able to use the 5GUK network.

The competition closed in December 2017 and the winners were announced in March 2018. Six organisations were chosen to receive between £2 million and £5 million in government grants as part of a total investment of £41 million from private sector and other public sector funding. The funding will run from 1 April 2018 to 31 March 2019. The winning bids are geographically dispersed across the UK and cover a wide range of 5G use cases.

The phase 1 projects are:

  • 5G RuralFirst, led by Cisco with partners the University of Strathclyde, 5GIC, Agri-Epi Centre and the BBC, secured a grant of £4.1m to look at the challenges and business case for rural deployments; use cases around agriculture, broadcasting and utilities; and the integration of spectrum sharing. Following an official launch in June 2018, in October it announced the Orkney use cases and locations. Enhanced mobile broadband for high speed mobile broadband will be delivered in five locations; the BBC is leading a trial into broadcast over 5G; pre-5G radios will be used for connectivity for a ferry service that loses WiFi connectivity once it leaves the port; LiFi is being tested in harsh rural environments; and a number of IoT-enabled use cases around tourism, health and safety, salmon farming and wind farming. 5G RuralFirst will also deliver a 1Gbps fibre service in Somerset and Shropshire. In November it announced two Shropshire use cases around agriculture and a third in the energy sector.
  • 5G Rural Integrated Testbed (5GRIT) secured a grant of £2.1 million for use cases around improving rural connectivity, tourism and smart agriculture. It is a partnership between a number of SMEs as well as King’s College London, Kingston University London, Lancaster University and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which will contribute data. The project is building a 5G testbed in six counties in northern England and southern Scotland and will use TV white space technology to test the potential for shared spectrum radio to deliver 5G to rural areas. The first base stations had been installed by September 2018. 5GRIT has demonstrated the use of drones for livestock monitoring and VR/AR in tourism.
  • 5G Smart Tourism is led by the West of England Combined Authority with partners including Bristol Futures Global, University of Bristol, BBC and Aardman Grant. It received a £5 million grant to use AR and VR to enhance the tourist experience in major attractions in Bath and Bristol. It will also demonstrate the self-provisioning of 5G, WiFi and mmWave backhaul. There will also be a public safety angle through the use of network slicing to provide capacity for emergency services.
  • AutoAir is led by Airspan Communications and includes 5GIC, McLaren, ARM, Quortus, RealWireless and BlueWireless. It was awarded £4.1 million to validate and develop connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV) at the Millbrook vehicle proving ground in Bedford. It aims to accelerate development of 5G small cells operating in licensed Sub 6GHz and mmWave bands on a shared neutral host platform, which will allow infrastructure to be used by multiple operators through network slicing. Deployment of the network began in July 2018.
  • Liverpool 5G Testbed is led by Sensor City which is working with local public sector health suppliers, universities and SMEs on health and social care applications for deprived communities. It received a grant of £3.5 million. In October 2018 the consortium hosted a community engagement event, including a presentation by a representative from South Korea’s 5G Forum, following which it is working towards user trials and identifying those who can take part in specialised trials for different use cases.
  • Worcestershire 5G Consortium is based at Malvern Hills Science Park and is led by the Worcestershire LEP with Worcestershire County Council, 5GIC, AWTG, Huawei, O2, BT, QinetiQ, Worcestershire Bosch and Yamazaki Mazak. It was awarded £4.8 million to research ways to increase industrial productivity through preventative and assisted maintenance using robotics, big data analytics and AR over 5G. It will also have a cyber security aspect with QinetiQ to drive ‘security by design’ for 5G and IoT technology.

Other 5GTT Projects

  • Roads: The 2017 Autumn Budget allocated £5 million to consider business models to improve 5G connectivity on the UK’s roads. As part of this, a feasibility study to identify the short and medium term demand for 5G applications on roads is expected to conclude at the end of 2018 and a review of the pilot proposal by the end of March 2019.#
  • Rail: The 2017 Autumn Budget announced £35 million for projects to enhance connectivity on UK railways. Two main projects are envisaged. The first will upgrade Network Rail’s Rail Innovation and Development Centre at Melton Mowbray to allow 5G technologies to be tested and made railway-ready. The second is to work with the LFFN Programme to trial 5G track-to-train connectivity on the Transpennine route between Manchester and Leeds.
  • Security: The 2017 Autumn Budget set aside £10 million for the creation of facilities to test and prove the security of 5G networks, which will be done in partnership with the National Cyber Security Centre.
  • Mapping: In February 2018 Ordnance Survey and its partners published two reports, a guide on what network planners and local authorities need to consider in terms of the geospatial environment when planning a new network, and a look at the impact of geospatial features and weather on 5G mmWaves.

Future 5GTT Projects

The next phase of 5GTT projects are already in the planning stage.

  • Urban Connected Communities (UCC) Project: Announced in March 2018 to develop a large-scale multi-city 5G testbed. West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) was announced as the project lead in September 2018, with up to £50 million of funding available (subject to further development and approval of the business plan) comprising £25 million from DCMS and £25 million from regional partners. An additional £25 million may be made available at a later stage and the public monies are to be match funded by the private sector. 5G hubs will be developed in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton and early trials will be around healthcare, construction and automotive. Initial plans include remote hospital appointments, connected ambulances and intelligent cameras to crack down on antisocial behaviour on buses. The first projects are expected to go live in early 2019.
  • Rural Connected Communities (RCC) Project: Partners are expected to be appointed in early 2019 for a project that will explore new commercial models and technical solutions (including infrastructure and spectrum sharing) to improve coverage in rural areas.
  • Sector Testbed and Trials Projects: DCMS is considering projects with a specific industry focus that are expected to begin in 2019 – target sectors are manufacturing and logistics although others are being considered. Around £25 million has been allocated to support several testbeds that will also involve private sector funding.

Digital Catapult testbeds

There are also a number of other testbeds that do not form part of the 5GTT Programme but warrant a brief mention.

  • Basingstoke: 5GIC, Deane Borough Council, Enterprise M3, Gematech and SETsquared are developing a 5G step-out facility at the Basing Innovation Centre for SMEs and start-ups to test applications that will be directly connected to 5GIC.
  • Brighton: A testbed at the Fusebox Innovation Hub was announced in March 2017 and officially launched in September 2018 as a collaboration between Coast to Capital LEP, Digital Catapult, Wired Sussex and University of Brighton. It aims to help SMEs develop new products and services that can benefit from 5G, with a focus around AR and VR, and has received a government grant of £1.2 million.
  • Buckinghamshire Thames Valley: The LEP and Satellite Applications Catapult are establishing a 5G step-out centre at Westcott Venture Park as a testbed for 5G terrestrial and satellite network infrastructure.
  • Milton Keynes: In July 2017, Huawei signed an MoU with Milton Keynes Council for a smart city infrastructure testbed, initially focused on CAVs, in partnership with Samsung, Juniper and Tech Mahindra.
  • Swansea: The Swansea Bay City Region Deal involves four councils and was signed in March 2017. It envisages £1.3 billion of private and public sector investment over 15 years in a number of projects, including a proposed 5G testbed.
  • Tyne and Wear: In September 2017 the North East Combined Authority (NECA), North East LEP, Digital Catapult, 5GIC and Nexus signed an MoU to set up a testbed for metro trials of 5G networks.

What’s Next?

The first wave of testbeds has now received funding and encompass a wide range of use cases and technology challenges, across the country. The second wave is already well advanced and more developments are expected in early 2019. We’ll keep you posted every step of the way! 

Sacha Kavanagh
About Sacha Kavanagh

Research Analyst/ Technical Writer

Sacha has more than 20 years’ experience researching and writing about enterprise tech, telecoms, data centres, cloud and IoT. She is a researcher, writer and analyst, and a regular contributor to 5G.co.uk writing guides and articles on all aspects of 5G.

View more posts by Sacha Kavanagh >

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