The Big Interview: Paul Coffey, CEO of the Scotland 5G Centre

Paul Coffey is chief executive of the Scotland 5G Centre, which says it works with businesses, the public sector, universities and communities to capture the opportunities and benefits of 5G.

The Glasgow-based Centre – a partnership between the University of Strathclyde (which hosts it), the University of Glasgow, and the Scottish Futures Trust, with investment from the Scottish Government – was set up in October 2019.

Its initiatives include the S5GConnect Programme, rolling out a network of local hubs whose remits encompass accelerating 5G deployment in key sectors.

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He has been in his current role since 2020, having previously set up his own consultancy, and has held various senior roles in mobile telecoms. His career “took a slightly unusual route, but one that I am particularly proud of and believe more students should consider” – leaving school at 16 to start an apprenticeship, later studying electrical and electronic systems engineering at university.

'I took a slightly unusual route, but one that I am particularly proud of,' says Mr Coffey of how his career progressed. Picture: John Devlin.
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A defining moment came when he led a project for what was then EE (where he later became head of strategic development), delivering the UK’s first 4G trial in Cornwall. “It highlighted to me the critical nature connectivity has on our lives and businesses and the digital divide. For example, we worked with a farmer who would be working for 14 hours and would then need to upload his cattle movements, which would take a further two hours due to the slow and unreliable broadband connection. The service we delivered transformed the lives of those 100 users.”

The Scotland 5G Centre last month hailed a series of milestones in 2021 such as forming a strategic advisory board, and your one-year anniversary in your role. Can you characterise progress last year, and the approach you have taken to leading the Centre?

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It was a really busy and productive year and we have considerable momentum as we start 2022. We have sharpened our focus on the execution and delivery of 5G use cases across Scotland.

The Centre will continue its pivotal role managing the discussions regarding the adoption of digital connectivity. This has been characterised by creating networks and partnerships and starting meaningful conversations. My approach has been collaborative as building relationships with academia, industry partners, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and regional agencies is crucial to our on-going success.

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What impact did the pandemic have on the Centre’s activity?

The global pandemic has shone a light on the need for digital connectivity to support businesses remotely and staff working from home. It has accelerated our progress, as people value how advanced connectivity and 5G capabilities can improve their lives.

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There are various key sectors across Scotland that I consider will be early movers when it comes to 5G adoption, one being healthcare. We need a new way to support this essential service. 5G can provide solutions to help such as the enhanced digital capability to support ways of assessing and treating patients remotely and support them in their own home.

You’ve hailed the launch of the S5GConnect Programme as a key moment – why do you believe this was so crucial?

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We are Scotland’s gateway for advanced connectivity. Our role is to orchestrate a network of partners that will consider how 5G and advanced connectivity can deliver innovation to Scotland’s key sectors. Bringing together industry partners with entrepreneurs, a network of SMEs through to academia and government bodies. The S5GConnect hubs are the magnet to achieve this across rural and urban centres across Scotland.

We have launched innovation hubs in Dumfries, Forth Valley and Dundee. They are “business enablers” – giving us an opportunity to demonstrate and promote the potential of 5G and support the creation of compelling use cases. Each hub will offer a private 5G testbed to allow businesses to develop, prototype and test real-world experiments. We also offer one-to-one consultancy and professional support to develop and scale businesses.

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Our recent physical launch at our first rural hub in Dumfries used a live test bed to display current applications. This included communication through large-format holograms allowing you to feel physically present with someone in a different location and showed the opportunity for remote healthcare through a live, immersive, and interactive conversation with a clinician in London. It enabled us to showcase the next level of telepresence for healthcare, business meetings, and education across borders.

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We are planning to open our second phase of hubs in the first quarter of this year – these will focus on complementary use cases and sectors delivering the 5G message and access to its capabilities to further areas and industry verticals sectors to capture the benefits and opportunities of 5G throughout Scotland.

To what extent can 5G help catalyse Scotland’s post-pandemic recovery? You’ve mentioned it being able to help “everyone and every industry,” but also “transform” working practices and procedures, with a key role to play in rural areas, for example.

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Access to digital connectivity is going to be vitally important if we are to emerge stronger from the pandemic. Covid-19 has changed our lives and being connected has become an even bigger part of our critical infrastructure, helping people to work and study remotely, and get access to health and social care online.

5G has a key role to play in supporting business productivity as well as providing societal benefits to the sparsely populated rural areas of Scotland. I use the term “connected countryside”.

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We are already seeing innovations in farmed salmon, a major contributor to our national economy. Digital innovations can enable sensors to measure water quality, pH levels and temperature. It can also support high-resolution underwater cameras and artificial intelligence software for disease identification.

We are working to help innovate Scotland’s key and diverse sectors including technology and engineering, healthcare, energy, manufacturing, aerospace, sciences, agriculture, fishing, creative, tourism, financial services and beyond. It’s an extensive list, but digital capability transcends these and is essential to change and innovation.

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You’ve also noted how the mobile industry generates carbon emissions but in other sectors can help save many times as much as it creates. Can you give some examples of how this can be achieved and how it ties in with Scotland’s net-zero ambitions?

5G has a significant role to play in one of the most important issues for the Scottish Government right now – helping meet the target of net zero by 2045. Addressing the climate emergency is vitally important and I see 5G as an opportunity to deliver a greener telecoms footprint. The 5G networks are designed to be more energy-efficient than their predecessors.

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New research from the University of Zurich has suggested that by 2030, data transmitted over a 5G network should cause around 85 per cent fewer emissions per unit than on today’s mobile networks.

There are also opportunities to reduce carbon footprints through sensing, monitoring and data insight. This information allows businesses and individuals to use this information to make choices to change their behaviour and their decision-making based on energy emissions they generate and make them more conscious about their contribution.

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The benefits of 5G will be enabled over a number of years. 5G services in three years will be quite different from what is available today. As we transition to higher throughput and lower latency services, our work environment will be transformed, enabling creative collaboration.

As an example, we can augment remote working with virtual collaboration in a single place to expand teamworking capabilities. This type of working will allow many industries to work smarter and more efficiently and help contribute to Scotland’s ambitious net-zero target.

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There are concerns about the negative impact of 5G, for example on health and security of data, while the aviation industry has raised concerns over risks to flight safety, for example. What is your view on this?

My experience of working in telecommunications is that there is always scepticism and concern about new technology and change. I agree that there should be robust checks and balances in place to ensure safety and security.

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5G can transform and enable key organisations with critical infrastructure, such as energy, industry 4.0 and healthcare. We need to design for data integrity and security to protect against security breaches and interruptions of operations, for example, within the energy sector.

I see 5G as an exciting opportunity for change and trust in the regulatory environment and agencies to support its safe development.

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The Centre last month said it was looking forward to the opportunities that 2022 will bring – what would you like to see it achieve this year, and beyond?

It is going to be an exciting year and here’s hoping for more freedom for businesses to thrive and develop. I see numerous opportunities for the Centre this year. We are at the start of something that only offers benefits for Scotland.

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This year for me is about stabilisation and excellence in delivery. As a team we have grown very quickly, and we need to focus on delivering our network of S5GConnect hubs across Scotland and building use cases and demonstrators that highlight the needs and opportunities that this technology presents.

I want to continue our work in rural and urban areas, and we will see further regional hubs opening and offering more opportunities for SMEs to scale up and adopt advanced digital communication services.

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It’s time for Scotland to unlock the power of 5G technologies, enhance public services, drive productivity and, most importantly, improve quality of life for citizens and businesses across Scotland.

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