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Dropped Signal? Why Birmingham's Property Market Needs To Grab 5G

New data shows that Birmingham's mobile connectivity is close to the bottom of the list of 16 major U.K. cities. Dropped calls and poor data services are dragging the city down.

As Birmingham prepares to become the test bed for new 5G mobile technology, can the city's property market make the best of the opportunity? Or is this going to be another missed call?

Ahead of the Bisnow Birmingham State of Office event on 6 December, we asked a panel of property experts to explain.


Birmingham's office market needs to wake up to 5G because today's digital connectivity may not be up to the job.

New research shows that the city is at risk of falling behind in key areas including network speed data performance and connectivity, and was ranked 14th out of 16 U.K. connurbations. Data from RootMetrics’ most recent U.K. national report ranks cities in terms of mobile network performance and how this could indicate the impact 5G will make in these urban areas.

They say connectivity is now as important as water, light and heating to an office space. The case for accurate detail is clear, and can help support key decision makers when securing office space.

Birmingham ranked among the bottom half in five out of six categories, including bottom-three rankings in the categories of overall performance, network speed where it was 15th out of 16, and data performance. Birmingham finished well in just one category: the city ranked fifth for text message performance. Birmingham’s low rankings were largely due to higher dropped call rates from O2 and Vodafone since the second half of 2017 and relatively slow speeds from O2, the research said.

For comparison, the London metro area ranked 16th out of 16 in four categories and 15th in two others. The market's rankings were pulled down by comparatively slow speeds from O2 and relatively high rates of blocked and dropped calls by both O2 and Vodafone.

Yet somehow other regional cities manage to come out OK: Manchester came in the top three in three categories; even Leeds, which didn't have a good year on digital connectivity, did appreciably better than Birmingham.

So is the report painting a fair picture? At the basic level of "does your mobile work" the researchers may be onto something, although it scarcely counts as a crisis. "There are issues at times," Lambert Smith Hampton Director Alex Tross said. "In the city core connectivity is not fantastic. There is an issue."

Bruntwood Director Rob Valentine concedes some truth to the research, too. "I don't have any problems with my mobile, and get 4G in the city core, and I'm with Vodafone," he said. "But fibre connectivity in the city centre is not great. We make sure our buildings have two links for the sake of resilience."

The Colmore Business Improvement District is now at work with OpenReach on plans to beef up fibre connections to the surprisingly large number of office blocks that do not have it, Valentine said.

We're Having Trouble Connecting You


The RootMetrics research is particularly wounding because Birmingham was chosen in September as one of the first U.K. cities to trial 5G mobile.

5G is not just a step up from 4G: for those who can remember it, this is like the switch from dial-up internet to always-on broadband. 5G offers a whole new world of digital connectivity and Birmingham, along with Wolverhampton and Coventry, are in the first wave of locations to experiment with what it could offer.

The three cities have £50M, half from local councils and half from the government, to fund a massive expansion of mobile data transfer capacity. It means more devices can be connected simultaneously, and at vastly improved speeds, up to 100 times the 4G rate.

The first fruits of 5G in the West Midlands will come in the form of multiple superfast connections to buses, hospitals and the emergency services, meaning faster responses and real-time data.

There are obvious implications for property and Bruntwood's Innovation Birmingham is working on proposals to take advantage of the 5G trial, hoping it can pay dividends for occupiers. And as Bruntwood asset manager and BCO NextGen Committee member Guy Revell points out it could make the dream of the smart building a reality.

"This isn't just about improved download speeds, but it's about a ubiquitous consistent data connection that doesn't drop out, and that consistency is what will be truly transformational," Revell said. "So we'll see changes on things like facilities management, where you can place sensors and data collection points easily without having to wire up the building. It will 100% change the idea of a smart building."

5G could also give Birmingham's agile workplace culture a fantastic shot in the arm. 

"The lack of fast and reliable connections could stunt the drive for agile and productive workplaces; flexible and future-proof," Overbury Senior Project Designer Joe Huddleston said.

Being able to offer tech-savvy graduates the best possible digital connectivity will do no harm to Birmingham's campaign in the battle for talent, Huddleston also points out.

Hopes Pinned On 5G

Birmingham Cathedral: a green oasis at the heart of the Colmore Row office district

The RootMetrics data does not go unchallenged: CBRE's Our Cities research quotes Ofcom figures showing Birmingham's current download speeds that look a bit better, and Manchester's looking a bit worse. 

5G enthusiasts expect it to prompt a second digital revolution in the Birmingham workplace.

“The introduction of 5G will offer a faster, data-driven digital workplace, leading to smart conference rooms, office automation, real-time team collaboration and the integration of AI," RootMetrics Head of Product Kevin Hasley said. "From investors to occupiers, having the right infrastructure in place to handle new technologies will be key in investment decision making.”

“It is important to note that 5G will also liberate our core cities to handle more demand for connectivity, making them even more desirable for investment. This creates further challenges for secondary cities and rural areas to compete for investment; however it does reaffirm that 4G and broadband still has a role to play in supporting these areas.”

Some take a firmly up-beat view. JLL tenant representation director Kelvin Craddock keeps a close eye on the Birmingham tech sector.

“5G arriving in Birmingham will provide a big boost to connectivity and WiredScore ratings for offices are also becoming more prevalent as landlords understand the importance of making sure the building’s digital infrastructure is the best it can be to attract quality occupiers," he said.

“We don’t perceive there to be a major problem in the city at present and certainly new-builds and the best refurbishments coming forward should be future-proofed to cater for modern occupier requirements.”

It sounds good. But is staking everything on 5G a wise strategy? Are golden bullets ever as golden as they seem?

Lambert Smith Hampton’s Alex Tross has his fingers crossed. “In the medium-term 5G will address Birmingham’s connectivity issues, but today’s situation is not good, especially if our dear brethren in Manchester are doing so well. It really doesn’t help our sales pitch.”

“We’ve got to sort out our digital capabilities, and in the meantime we need to focus on things like WiredScore which really matters for some occupiers. Landlords and developers are recognising this and putting their digital house in order, which is essential for occupiers.”

Bruntwood’s Rob Valentine agrees, and hopes for some political concentration on the issue from Birmingham City Council.

“Having the 5G trial is a massive opportunity. It opens the door to all kinds of things, like automated vehicles which really can’t work if you have data buffering [a problem 5G will banish]. The city council needs to recognise this, and I think they do, as a massive opportunity and get 100% behind it because it could be a fantastic showcase for us as we approach the Commonwealth Games in 2022,” Valentine said.

There is clearly work to be done to make the most of Birmingham’s 5G opportunity, and plenty more to do be done to get 4G up to scratch. Meanwhile fibre is still needed in some city centre buildings. Can it be done?

Sorry, what did you say? …. The line’s breaking up.

To join the debate on the future of Birmingham office space at the Bisnow State of Office event on 6 December register here.