Exploring the advantages and challenges of rolling out next-generation wireless networks in the UK and around the world
On 9 November Jim Hall, ITRC Director, chaired another well-attended ITRC webinar which focused on digital infrastructure, examining the importance of both conceptual and practical work in how we think about and analyse digital connectivity on broad scales.
Dr Edward Oughton, Assistant Professor of Data Analytics, George Mason University, gave a showcase of ITRC’s hugely impressive and wide-ranging work in this area over the past five years, which was followed by comments and responses from a distinguished, well-qualified international panel: Julius Kusuma, Research Scientist, Facebook Connectivity; William (Bill) Lehr, Research Scientist, Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tania Begazo-Gomez, Senior Economist, Digital Development, World Bank.
Ed’s overview showed how initial modelling to help the UK government lay out a strategy for the UK to improve digital connectivity soon acquired remarkable global reach, when tools piloted in the UK were scaled to apply to other contexts, culminating in the Global Model for Digital Infrastructure Assessment. Refining their approach with each study, Ed and his team have developed a robust modelling process for estimating demand at local level, using global datasets and remote sensor metrics to support the process. They then design least-cost network options with the analytics to inform investment decisions, running different strategies to obtain decision-support results for governments or private-sector operators on capacity and costs. His most recent work has been on the 5G Flagship and the Digital Economy for Africa Program – crucially looking at costs of investment and infrastructure challenges for lower and middle-income countries in Africa.
Julius responded by praising Ed’s work on analysing scenarios and potential outcomes using ITRC models, emphasising the complexities of connectivity in a world that’s hugely diverse in terms of connectivity needs, aspirations and potential – making it very difficult to find solutions that are timely, sustainable and scalable. He identified a lack of digital infrastructure as one of the biggest global challenges, particularly in rural areas.
Bill talked about the relevance of next-generation wireless networks in high-income areas of the world, such as the US and Europe, pointing out that this will be key to realising all future infrastructure developments. Part of the value of ITRC’s modelling is to examine the key questions – how much digital capacity do we need? Where do we need them? How many devices exist in a particular area? How fast can we realise these needs? Multiple stakeholder involvement, including consumers/businesses, network operators and governments require inputs, on multiple scales, before committing to investment. Modelling this future is essential in order to consider alternatives, demand forecast, understand trade-offs between social and private concerns, and to attempt to foresee future technologies and ITC needs.
Tania has been working with Ed on World Bank initiatives to improve digital provision in parts of the world where connectivity is lagging, examining how to minimise the cost of infrastructure deployment given available technologies. She spoke of the challenge of obtaining reliable data in many parts of the world, and the lack of usage in some areas with the accompanying challenge to find strategies, commercial and government sponsored, to help the public become digitally engaged. She also emphasised the huge importance to world of connectivity, and its strong links to education and prosperity.
With many stimulating questions from listeners and participants, Jim and Ed then led a wide-ranging discussion which covered, amongst other things, technical and demand-side issues, regulation and the role of government in digital infrastructure, and artificial intelligence.
Watch the webinar on catch up, below: