What does the future hold for UK telecoms?

By: Dave Millett

Date: 18 December 2018

The future of UK telecomsNew year is traditionally a time to look back at what has gone before - and also forward to what is to come. During my 40 years in the telecoms industry a lot has changed, and I have absolutely no doubt that there are many more changes on the horizon.

So how did we get to where we are today? And what does the future hold?

A brief history of UK telecoms

Mobile networks

Cellnet and Vodafone, two rival operators, launched Britain's first cellular telephone service in 1985. Cellnet was partly owned by BT which - rather short-sightedly - sold it, and then spent £12.5 billion in 2015 to buy its way back into the market.

The UK was ahead of Germany and France in launching the technology, as it often was in those days. Sad to say, we have lost that lead and are lagging a long way behind.

In 1991 a British company, Orbitel, created the first GSM phone. Unfortunately, they did not capitalise on it, and Orbitel ultimately ended up being part of Ericsson.

Mobile internet access

Japan launched the world's first commercial 3G network in late 2001. This technology was not available in the UK until 2003, and still hasn’t reached some parts today.

In 2002 Nokia launched the first ever cameraphone in Europe, and Skype was born. 2002 was also the start of the decline in international call revenues for operators.

The iPhone had revolutionised the world of mobiles by 2007, with Blackberry’s then-Chief Executive saying touchscreen phones would never catch on! The device was undoubtedly helped by the arrival of 4G, which was first launched in late 2009 in Stockholm and Oslo.

As a sign of the ever-increasing gap between the UK and the leading tech countries, we had to wait almost three years before 4G reached our shores - and even then only in 11 cities.

VoIP and SIP-based services

In 1995, Israeli company VoaclTec developed voice over internet protocol (VoIP) - although it needed better broadband before it could really take off.

It would be five years before ADSL broadband was commercially launched in the UK. And it would be a further seven years (2007) before VoIP became prevalent enough for Ofcom to feel the need to publish Regulation of VoIP Services.

Recent years have seen the growth of VoIP and SIP-based services. Fifteen per cent of business connections are now VoIP, and SIP has overtaken ISDN as a means of connecting PBXs. WhatsApp has more than a billion users worldwide, and the number of text messages has fallen by half since its peak.

Fast broadband promises

1992 saw dial-up internet access first introduced in the UK by Pipex. As discussed above, ADSL broadband became commercially available in 2000.

By 2008, Virgin had launched one of the first fibre broadband services. A year later, BT announced it would connect 2.5 million homes to fibre to the premises (FTTP) by 2012. They had achieved just 10 per cent of that number by 2015.

Governments began making broadband promises; most of which totally underestimated the growth of the digital age and the inadequacy of the current plans. This started with the Labour government in 2009 promising that all UK homes would receive 2mbps broadband by 2012.

Two years later the coalition Government changed that to 90 per cent of UK premises receiving 24mbps by 2015. This was then pushed back to 2017.

What does the future hold?

Artificial intelligence

Increasing familiarity with virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri may mean we are beginning to see the end of the keyboard altogether. The growth of artificial intelligence (AI) is likely to make devices more intuitive and able to anticipate our needs.

Flexible, indestructible devices

Future devices could be more like a piece of glass. Corning is already developing tech whereby circuitry is embedded in Gorilla glass - which could lead to transparent, flat and flexible, yet highly robust, devices.

Samsung recently announced that foldable devices are coming, which would allow users to unfold their phone to create a bigger screen when showing information to friends or business colleagues, and then collapse it back again for personal use.

Augmented reality and holograms

Devices will not only give you the ability to view videos, but will be able to project them and link into augmented reality (AR). Imagine looking at a sofa online or in a shop, and being able to see a 3D image of what it would look like in your lounge.

The next step in video calling will likely be the ability for the device to project a 3D hologram of the person you’re talking to - making it appear as though you are having a real face-to-face conversation.

UK infrastructure failures

For these technologies to become real, and for us to benefit from them we need the appropriate underlying infrastructure. Right now the UK is lagging far, far behind - and slipping further all the time.

In February 2018, BT confirmed that it will be spending at least £3 billion to roll out FTTP broadband in the UK by 2020. Even if they meet their target (and their track record is hardly encouraging), the UK will still only reach the level that the rest of Europe currently averages.

The government has said we should be fully FTTP by 2033 - when countries such as South Korea and Japan are already at almost 90%. We’re just starting the first trial of 5G in one city, whereas Japan plans to launch it commercially in 2020.

In South Korea, the three mobile operators have combined forces to build a single 5G network which is planned for launch in March 2019. Consequently, Samsung will be able to steal a lead on bringing 5G devices to the market. Could we see Vodafone and BT and other operators joining forces?

Falling behind

The last 40 years has taught that, despite having invented many of the technologies we now take for granted, the UK has failed to exploit them. Also, various governments, of all political colours, have made promises to improve our infrastructure and consistently failed to do so.

Although they have announced future plans, the dates are so far in the future that at least two elections will be fought beforehand. So who knows if these targets will ever be met?

We are becoming more and more dependent on our handheld devices - but we may find we are able to use them for fewer activities and in fewer places than users in many other countries.

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

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