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Brexit should not hinder 5G development, says report

A report commissioned by the government claims the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union should have minimal impact on the country’s ability to lead on the development of 5G networks

Although the wider impact of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) is yet to be understood, existing international structures and standardisation should mean the impact of Brexit on the development of future 5G mobile networks, and Britain’s ability to influence them, will be largely undiminished.

This was one of a number of key conclusions of a report drawn up for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) by the Future Communications Challenge Group (FCCG) – a consortium of independent voices from academia, the IT industry and the analyst community – which was asked by the government to offer advice on how the UK could maximise its involvement in the development of 5G.

The FCCG concluded that although much of the activity surrounding 5G mobile networks in the EU is very strongly linked to the Horizon 2020 research plan, the vote to leave the EU should not affect the involvement of UK companies, operators and suppliers.

The report said that both mobile network operators (MNOs) and suppliers would continue to need to use and influence the development of technical standards for networks and equipment. It said the cost of developing competitive standards would be so high that it would be uneconomical for companies to develop hardware such as handsets solely for the UK market.

Also, consumers will still need to roam across borders, and internationally available services will still need to be made available, so it would be “quite incorrect” to view Brexit as an opportunity to develop competing hardware or standards.

Equally, high-level decision-making bodies such as the GSMA and the ITU World Radio communication conferences are set outside the EU, while the implementation of EU regulations on spectrum frequency bands and applications is outsourced to bodies such as the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administration (CEPT) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), so the UK’s ability to take part in this work will not change.

However, the FCCG did identify two areas of concern – the ability of UK-based MNOs and other mobile companies to source the right skills to keep the country at the forefront of 5G development, and the ability of UK universities to participate and lead research programmes, as well as obtain funding for their work.

The UK is home to a number of major 5G projects, including the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey in Guildford, which could become one of the bodies hit by lack of access to sufficient project funding.

A system of systems

The report urged the government to carefully consider a number of points besides Brexit. It said 5G should be viewed as a “system of systems” rather than a wholly new standard, bringing together mobile and fixed broadband technology and broadcast networks to create a seamless, ultrafast whole to support the future demands of users.

It claimed that 5G could be worth £198bn a year to the UK economy by 2030 – assuming the country remains at the forefront of development and deployment. But not acting to support it could lose the UK £173bn of incremental GDP over the same timeframe, said the FCCG.

The group called on the government to exploit the UK’s existing strength to foster innovation; to help catalyse the test and development process, opening it up to micro and SME involvement; to create and implement plans for sectors such as transport, health and social care, smart cities and financial services; to better fund the UK’s presence at the table both inside and outside the EU; to develop and promote the business case for 5G investment and support it with a pro-investment regulatory environment; to guarantee early access to spectrum; and to establish a 5G implementation body to manage progress.

Read more about 5G R&D in the UK

TechUK’s head of technology, Julian McGougan, said the FCCG report was timely following the funding for 5G trials announced in the Autumn Statement in November 2016.

“It is hard to overestimate the potential economic benefit of rapid, and widespread, availability of 5G, where the UK has the potential to be the European leader,” said McGougan. “That will require trials and testbeds for which Ofcom should make available suitable spectrum, preferably in a more flexible manner than the current non-operational licences. We welcome the recommendation that long-term strategies for UK spectrum should be agreed with the UK Spectrum Policy Forum.”

McGougan also pointed to the need for much greater coverage for roads and rail networks than is currently provided by 4G mobile networks, and said the public sector needed to play a more active role in helping to enable access to assets owned by the likes of Highways England and Network Rail.

“TechUK also very much supports the recognition that being a 5G leader requires quick, predictable access by mobile operators to fibre-enabled sites for masts,” he added.

“This requires a more consistent approach to securing planning permission, and for the public and private sectors to collaborate more closely. I am delighted to say that techUK is already working towards this collaborative approach with representatives of both sectors.”

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