5G: what will it really mean for the UK?

By: Dave Millet

Date: 1 May 2018

5G: what will it really mean for the UK?The transition to 5G offers the UK the opportunity to make up for past mistakes and lead Europe in the move to the next generation of wireless network technology. But first there are a number of challenges to overcome.

Before we discuss these, and what the Government and Ofcom needs to do, let’s take a look at 5G and how it is different from its predecessor 4G. 5G:

  • is about 10 times faster than 4G - a high-definition film should only take about a second to download;
  • suffers from less latency than 4G - important in relation to future technology like driverless cars and remote surgery;
  • has greater capacity - more devices can connect and communicate at the same time.

UK mobile coverage - an operational issue

The UK currently ranks 54th in the world for 4G coverage. 5G is unlikely to be any different.

The Government has consistently failed to get the major mobile operators to improve coverage, and yet these same networks - Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three - all won part of the bandwidth needed for the 5G networks. So why will the 5G auction result in a better outcome than with 4G?

Ofcom has recognised some of its past failures, saying: "To ensure widespread improvements in mobile coverage across the UK, we are proposing to attach coverage obligations to some of the licences we will award for the 700 MHz band [in 2019]… These obligations will require winning bidders to roll out improved mobile coverage in rural areas and the nations."

But these obligations are not attached to the 5G auctions.

Forcing networks to offer free roaming across the networks would dramatically improve the situation. You can roam free across Europe - but not in the UK.

The Government is talking about 5G services being launched in 2020 at the earliest - while the USA, South Korea, Japan and many other countries in Asia are already way ahead of us. China, for example, is expected to have 40% of worldwide 5G connections by 2025 - and this will have a hugely positive impact on jobs and China’s GDP. In the USA 5G is expected to be available in some cities as early as Q4 of 2018.

Grasping the opportunity

The UK Government regularly talks about the strength of the country’s digital economy. For that to succeed, grow and attract inward investment, we need the right infrastructure, and to be at the forefront, not lagging behind the rest of the world.

Investment in 5G technology will need to be paid for. Yet the network operators are facing revenue pressures from applications such as WhatsApp, and have seen text message volumes fall by 40% over the last 4-5 years. This is a big drop in revenues. So 5G is likely to cost customers more - plus we’ll need new 5G compatible phones.

5G represents a great opportunity for the UK; to make up for the mistakes it made over 4G and the current terrible lack of broadband availability. This is the time to become genuine leaders in Europe. But Ofcom needs to hold the operators accountable for failures to deliver, and it needs to be radical about releasing the capacity within the spectrum.

In the same way the UK Government encouraged the oil industry with tax breaks, perhaps it should be looking to do something similar with companies hoping to exploit the capabilities of 5G.

Sponsored post. Copyright © 2018 Dave Millett, independent telecoms brokerage Equinox.