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What’s in the UK government’s 5G strategy?

The UK government’s 5G mobile strategy was released to coincide with the Spring Budget. We look at some of its key aims

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The future of mobile networking once again drew the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer during March 2017’s Budget, with new initiatives announced to ensure the UK takes the lead, and remains a leader, in the development of 5G mobile networks.

The successor to current 4G networks, 5G is slated to come into widespread commercial usage in the early 2020s, and promises vast improvements around reduced latency, browsing and download speeds. As well as a fatter pipe for consumers and businesses to fill with data, 5G also heralds a sea-change in how up-and-coming technologies such as connected vehicles and the internet of things (IoT) are deployed and supported, indeed, some believe that these technologies will only really come into their own once 5G is available.

However, unlike 4G networks, mobile experts agree that 5G will be introduced over a number of years, as an evolutionary process. It is very unlikely that – as with previous mobile generations – there will be a single day when 5G is “switched on”; if everything goes to plan, 4G will evolve seamlessly into 5G.

Indeed, it is already doing so, with many operators looking to deploy gigabit long-term evolution (LTE) technology on their 4G networks as a kind of halfway house.

Planning for evolutionary change is rather more complicated than it would be if activating 5G was as simple as flipping a switch, which is why to coincide with Philip Hammond’s Budget statement, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) officially launched its 5G strategy.

DCMS’ 70-page document contains a wealth of information on how the government hopes to foster the development and deployment of 5G in the UK, but also raises a number of questions, especially when it comes to building an economic case for 5G and funding the roll-out of the technology.

In the Budget, Hammond committed £16m to a so-called “cutting edge” 5G facility to be delivered in cooperation with research institutions, such as the University of Surrey, which is already running its own 5G Innovation Centre.

Read more about recent 5G developments

However, given 5G’s criticality to the future of the UK’s digital economy, many observers were at pains to point out that compared to the multi-billion pound investment in high speed rail, for example £16m was a drop in the ocean.

This was a point not lost on Patrick Imbach, co-head of tech growth at KPMG, who said: “The Chancellor is also right to invest in 5G technology. However, with Ofcom, the UK regulator, wanting 5G to arrive by 2020 and operators still looking to make a return on their 4G investments you would need to question how much of an impact £16m will have?”

But Dan Adams, lead UK partner for telecommunications at Deloitte, took an opposing view, saying: “The commitment to invest £16m in a 5G hub will be welcome news for the telecommunications industry and will help provide the building blocks for the UK to be 5G ready.

“5G technology will cost billions of pounds to develop, and will create tens of billions of pounds for the UK economy. A small investment now can go a long way to positioning the UK at the very centre of global 5G investment.”

The path ahead is unclear

Some of this hesitance to commit more money might stem from a lack of clarity as to how 5G networks will be deployed, and where they will reach.

Indeed, the government conceded this was a significant factor, saying that because the development of 5G will be part of a much wider ecosystem of various wireless technologies – evolved 4G networks, small cells and so on – there were still many unknowns to contend with.

It therefore made much of its commitment to fund more full fibre networks as a key enabler for 5G backhaul, as well as consumer broadband services.

However, it added, the “vast majority” of the capital required will have to come from the private sector, and because the business case for the investment in 5G roll-out on a large-scale basis has not yet been sufficiently established, one cannot yet tell if all the investment will come from network owners and operators, which may explain the apparently limited scale of the current intervention.

The government said it saw its role as more of a facilitator, helping to build a robust framework to help underpin and accelerate wider commercial investment in 5G. Its £16m contribution will be largely directed in this area, promoting interoperability and openness and funding testbeds and trials in both urban and rural parts of the country.

It also said that 5G had the potential to support “significant efficiencies” when it came to effective delivery of public services. Wearable health monitors and sensors connecting over ultrafast 5G networks may, for example, help to reduce pressure on primary care and A&E services in the NHS, or augmented and virtual reality applications supported by 5G in the classroom could allow students to learn more effectively.

The public sector may therefore have a vital role to play in “driving early demand as a major purchaser of 5G services”, as well as addressing issues around public perception and awareness, and safety.

Will Stewart, vice-president at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), supported this aim, but said that getting the regulatory framework right would be a crucial element.

“It’s important to stress that the 5G investment announced today will not come anywhere close to bridging the investment gap needed to deliver 5G across the UK, so the government strategy’s recognition that regulatory modernisation is needed to make the final bill of delivering 5G more affordable, for example by enabling operators to share networks, is pivotal,” said Stewart. 

“The biggest challenge for government will be improving coverage for all, as 5G cannot transform what it doesn’t cover. And achieving universal coverage for the UK, outside high-capacity urban areas, will not be affordable or achievable without regulatory change.

“Ultimately, delivering 5G is not a flash in the pan to be achieved in 2020, but a journey demanding deep and sustained levels of cooperation between governments, regulators, operators, suppliers and vertical industries,” he said.

Testbeds and trials

As we have seen, the immediate investment of £16m will fund a national programme of test beds and trials supported by the new 5G Innovation Network collaboration.

The test beds will comprise a “hub and spoke” model to accelerate the development of 5G technology out of the research phase and towards commercial deployment. Each hub will consist of a core network infrastructure to connect to spoke testbeds that correspond to various use cases, such as rail, automotive, healthcare, retail and so on.

The government means to work towards having an end-to-end 5G network up and running early in 2018 to support the testbed spokes.

It intends for the programme to ensure that the development of 5G in the UK is coordinated, standards-based, and open to small and medium-sized enterprises.

At the same time, it will establish a 5G centre of expertise within DCMS to coordinate 5G-related activity across the government, including with organisations such as UK Research and Innovation, and the Government Digital Service (GDS).

This team will also work alongside the technology sector to identify potential projects to trial; develop wider understanding of how 5G can be deployed in various contexts; monitor the results of the trials to build a dossier of evidence to support future investment; facilitate engagement with local authorities and businesses; facilitate international engagement to try to keep the UK at the forefront of 5G innovation; and drive a common set of standards.

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