The UK may be late to market with 4G, but this hasn't curbed Britain's appetite for advanced mobile services.

The UK may be behind the curve when it comes to 4G adoption (services are being rolled out this year, following spectrum allocations – see box), but this hasn’t hampered British mobile innovation. The UK is a hotbed of mobile creativity and talent, being one of the most advanced markets for smartphone adoption. There are 36 million active smartphones in the UK today, equivalent to more than half the national population, according to analyst firm Portio Research.

Overall mobile penetration is 130% - the UK had 83 million mobile subscribers in total at the end of 2012, Portio estimates. It is no coincidence that advertisers spend more per mobile internet user on mobile advertising in the UK than in any other country in the world according to eMarketer.

The UK is a leader in app development, for example. In March this year a British teenager, Nick D’Aloisio, famously sold his news digest iPhone app, Summly, to Yahoo for $30 million. Meanwhile Spanish operator Telefonica, which owns the O2 network, has chosen London as the base for its digital business, Telefonica Digital - in recognition of the talent and opportunity that is concentrated in the UK.

British innovation is also heating up in the emerging field of machine-to-machine communications (also known as the ‘Internet of Things’ or IoT). This is where dumb/inanimate objects (from traffic lights to consumable products) are given digital properties so they can be controlled or provide value-added information across mobile connections.

EVRYTHNG, which is already selling commercialized IoT solutions to global brands such as Diageo, is a British company. Cambridge, UK-based Neul, is another homegrown IoT specialist. It is currently working with local government organizations and the UK Highways Agency to roll out practical solutions that transform everything from the way refuse is collected (by monitoring when commercial dumpsters need emptying) to addressing road hazards (by tracking when vehicles are stationary on the shoulder of a freeway).

Neul co-founder Professor William Webb is also a board member at Cambridge Wireless, a not-for-profit forum representing the wireless and mobile industry in the UK. He believes the arrival of 4G services in the UK will transform the development and take-up of M2M applications. Community-based healthcare is an area of huge potential for the technology, he notes. Commonly suggested applications include monitoring devices that gauge whether patients have taken their medication, or if their condition has deteriorated, but Webb sees broader potential where multiple sources of data can be combined to paint a bigger picture.  “If there is someone elderly and frail living at home and a system can see that they haven’t used any electricity for the last 24 hours, it could trigger an alert,” he suggests.

Cambridge is home to one of a number of clusters of mobile innovation in the UK, born out of university research labs, and it is arguably the most successful.

Chip manufacturer ARM , whose tiny devices power many modern smartphones, originated here. In its latest move the company has announced a partnership with Boston-based company, LogMeIn, to accelerate commercial development on the Internet of Things. The two parties have launched a rapid development kit designed to reduce the cost, complexity and learning curve required to bring related products and solutions to market. LogMeIn’s Xively Jumpstart Kit combines ARM mbed, a platform for rapidly building connected devices using ARM-based microcontrollers, with Xively’s cloud platform.

Another hub of activity to watch is in Surrey, south-west of London, where a newly established 5G Innovation Centre has emerged from the UK’s University of Surrey in Guildford.  It is backed by $55 million of government and private funding put up by some big names in the telecoms industry. Dr. Shahram Niri, general manager of the center, says the center’s goal is to become not just a national hub for research into future mobile technologies, but a global research centre.

The 5G Innovation Center is an offshoot of the university’s Centre for Communication Systems Research (CCSR), the UK’s largest and most well-known academic research centre in mobile and satellite communication systems. Although 4G networks are still in their infancy, Dr. Niri believes it is vital to push ahead with the next generation of cellular technology because of the accelerating rate of bandwidth consumption as rich applications and content are mobilized.

“We are increasingly facing a capacity crunch with the tremendous growth in traffic,” he says. “Analysts and service provider partners estimate that 40-50% of traffic will be video based. Currently traffic is doubling every year so it won’t be long before we’re looking at 1000 times the volumes we have now. We’re getting into the realm of ‘hyper-connectivity’ - by the year 2020 we’re likely to see between 50 and 70 billion devices connected to mobile networks. Even today we’re not far from a situation where mobile will be the dominant means by which people access the Internet. With the Internet of Things, the situation will escalate rapidly.”

To cope with the exploding demand, technology leaders need to think differently, Dr. Niri says, and this is where the work of the 5G Innovation Centre will be concentrated. “Spectrum, the bloodline of our industry, is scarce and finite, so there is only so much that can be done about capacity,” he notes. “We have almost reached the limits of the number of bits that can be squeezed out of each hertz. So that means looking at other options from small cells to the way we allocate and consume spectrum.”

Keeping the cost down for service providers will be another goal of the Innovation Centre, enabling them to upgrade their networks more frequently. “In terms of technology, the next generation of mobile networks will have to be more intelligent, flexible, efficient and resilient, and yet at much lower cost per bit. This isn’t achievable with 4G technology.”

It is likely to be another seven years before 5G is a reality, “though we may need it earlier,” Dr Niri notes.

However soon it gets here, the UK is determined to be in the driving seat.


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About Sue Tabbitt

Sue Tabbitt is a technology journalist who covers IT and telecommunications.