David Attenborough, in holographic form, guides visitors through the augmented reality experience, powered by 5G
David Attenborough, in holographic form, guides visitors through the augmented reality experience, powered by 5G

David Attenborough would appear to be an unlikely figurehead for wireless communication standards. But, this month, the 95-year-old broadcaster will be front and centre — albeit virtually — in a high-profile trial of “standalone” 5G connectivity.

The “Green Planet AR Experience”, inspired by his BBC television series, will open on Regent Street, central London, on Friday, February 11, and allow people to experience, first-hand, what the technology is capable of.

Visitors will be able to move through six “biomes”, ranging from rainforest to desert, guided by a holographic Attenborough, and will be immersed in a botanic world as “aggressive, competitive and dramatic” as anything on the planet.

This augmented reality project represents an important step in demonstrating the full benefits of 5G, which was first launched in the US and South Korea in 2019 but has struggled to become established as a distinctive technology in the eyes of consumers.

EE, the mobile network owned by BT, and Ericsson, the Swedish telecoms equipment company, have built a “private network” for the exhibition, which will allow visitors using a Samsung phone to explore virtual rainforests and wetlands, alongside a holographic Attenborough.

The BBC wildlife presenter shoots scenes for The Green Planet AR Experience
The BBC wildlife presenter shoots scenes for The Green Planet AR Experience

Private networks like these have started to spring up around the globe over the past year, mostly for industrial use. And they employ wireless technology that is much faster and more responsive than the public 5G networks deployed in the real world,

Crucially, these private networks deliver much lower “latency” (the speed at which a network responds to a signal). This can shave milliseconds off the time taken to perform a function — essential when braking a self-driving car, controlling a drone, or stopping a manufacturing line, but less so when sending a text message.

Katherine Ainley, Ericsson’s UK and Ireland chief executive, believes the Green Planet exhibition will shine a light on the future of 5G.

“It shows how 5G, and especially 5G standalone, can be used to create new immersive experiences for consumers . . . It is an excellent demonstration of how technology can be used as a platform for a more connected and sustainable future.”

To date, 5G networks have been three to four times faster than 4G services, according to testing companies.

At present, these services run on a hybrid network, where 5G antennas sit on top of the existing 4G “core” — the servers and software that are at the heart of a telecoms company. However, that is set to change as the era of “standalone” 5G is ushered in.

The full-fat version of 5G will deliver a much richer experience, with speeds that could prove to be 1,000 times faster than 4G over time, while also lowering the cost of running the network for telecoms operators.

Patrick Linder, senior director at testing company Rootmetrics, says network operators around the world are building 5G networks at a rapid rate but only a few — T-Mobile in the US, for example — have launched standalone services commercially.

Linder estimates that it will be many years before standalone is mainstream, with 4G still being used by millions of users.

“More and more standalone 5G rollouts will happen sooner rather than later to augment existing non-standalone 5G networks, but we don’t expect it to become the default for several years,” he explains.

Marc Allera, chief executive of BT Consumer, says 2022 will be a critical year in moving 5G standalone into the public consciousness.

BT has been deploying this type of private network for industrial settings, including Belfast Harbour and in the West Midlands, to assist in the development of automotive technology.

But the Green Planet trial will be the first of a series of commercial test networks that BT launches in 2022, aimed at developing a broader vision for standalone 5G.

“For consumers, it means a more reliable, responsive and secure network, as well as lower latency and, as we re-farm some spectrum to support 5G, improved speeds too,” Allera says.

“It will deliver new opportunities for industries like online gaming — especially gaming on the go — and new content-rich, immersive and interactive augmented reality experiences, exactly like the 5G Green Planet experience.”

Matthew Howett, founder of Assembly Research, admits that 5G may have appeared to be “just another ‘G’” up until now. But he says standalone is set to “enable a whole host of new use cases that we’ve probably not even thought of yet”, while providing the networks needed to turn “perceived pipe dreams of smart cities and autonomous vehicles into a reality”.

He adds that the transformation of UK factories and plants into 5G standalone test beds will make Britain a more attractive place to invest.

For Linder, 5G standalone is the means to deliver the vision that Big Tech has started to promise, such as the virtual worlds of the ‘metaverse’.

“If the metaverse does become the world’s next killer use case, the key benefits of 5G — a trifecta of incredible capacity, speed, and latency — could prove vital in enabling the zero-lag video and immersive XR experiences that are central to the metaverse movement, for both end users and businesses alike.”

That could be the moment when 5G is decoupled from 4G and needs to stand on its own feet.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article