Connectivity has played a crucial role during the Covid-19 pandemic, whether you have been working remotely or staying in touch with family and friends over Zoom.
While the country was in lockdown, technology allowed us to retain some social connections, provided entertainment and has so far helped us to manage the spread of the virus, while also enabling businesses to remain operational.
Our experiences over the last few months have accelerated some technology trends and, perhaps most importantly, there are likely to be more to come. Faster, more reliable, wireless 5G networks are already being deployed and they could significantly shape how the economy recovers from the effects of Covid-19.
A recent report commissioned by Vodafone suggested that 5G could provide a financial boost to the UK economy as it recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic. It estimated that upgrading to 5G infrastructure could be worth as much as £158 billion to the economy over the next decade.
From public services to SMEs, every sector will approach the months and years ahead in different ways. However, the combination of 5G connectivity and digitalisation can create new opportunities for all. The pandemic may, in fact, have become a catalyst for some industries to challenge the status quo, perhaps implementing new ways of working and procedures that could boost productivity and efficiency – with a real focus on digitalisation.
Non-stop connectivity delivered through 5G networks can have a transformational impact on businesses and people’s lives. It will give people more opportunities to choose how they live and work, no matter where they are – which will likely become particularly important in the future.
In a new post-Covid environment, there are many areas where companies and public services could significantly benefit from the opportunities available through 5G connectivity.
Firstly, in the future of public health. In the short-term, connected sensors could help us to manage and monitor social distancing, but longer-term, the healthcare sector could be transformed with access to more reliable networks that enable new technology to be more widely used.
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At Heriot-Watt University, for example, AI and robotics experts from the National Robotarium have started work on what is believed to be the world’s first conversational robot for a healthcare setting. Social robots can help to improve patient wellbeing by providing companionship, decreasing stress and loneliness. The robots need to be able to manage and react to real-time actions and feedback – something which is only possible when using a reliable network.
5G can also play an important role in the shift towards contactless commerce and remote services. There have been significant developments in autonomous delivery robots for use in hospitality, retail and healthcare. For example, UK drone delivery provider Skyports is currently undertaking trials for the transportation of medical supplies and samples between hospitals and medical centres in Argyll and Bute. Using mobile and space-based connectivity, transit times for medicine, samples and essential PPE could be cut from 48 hours to just 30 minutes.
In city centres, wireless communications networks have been used to monitor changes in footfall, traffic and air quality – measurements which might indicate how our lifestyles change beyond the pandemic. There is a huge opportunity to use 5G in public transport, for example, but as people continue to work from home and avoid crowded commutes, there may be a shift towards technology for cyclists or electric scooters.
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While we all hope that this pandemic remains a once-in-a-lifetime event, it will likely leave a lasting impact on business continuity and resilience planning. Manufacturers that were deemed non-essential, for example, might look to introduce automated systems that would allow production to continue with minimal human resources, or with operators based remotely. Private 5G networks such as the one planned for the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland will be crucial in helping businesses to make the most of technology.
None of this can happen overnight. The success we make of 5G, and its associated post-Covid opportunities, will depend on collaboration between entrepreneurs, the public sector, SMEs and industry. Through programmes such as S5GC Connect, research groups and businesses can test and develop new 5G applications and services to find out what is possible for them.
Scotland is a nation of entrepreneurs and innovators, and the ideal place for developing new 5G applications. While the pandemic has highlighted the importance of connectivity, this is only the beginning. Across every sector, there is a real opportunity to use mobile networks to future-proof businesses and services, embracing new opportunities that are made possible through new technology.