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Slow roll-out of standalone 5G risks UK SMEs taking annual £8.6bn hit

Research from UK telco suggests lack of availability of true 5G puts smaller businesses at disadvantage compared with continental European counterparts taking advantage of reliable superfast connectivity

As a result of government schemes and investment from the private sector, UK mobile coverage has spread its wings rapidly over the recent past, but a study from UK operator Vodafone is warning that UK business risks being outpaced by European rivals that are investing in reliable, superfast 5G connectivity at a faster rate, with the threat greatest to small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that could be missing out on up to £8.6bn a year in productivity savings due to the slow roll-out of standalone 5G.

The Supercharging small businesses study highlighted how the accelerated roll-out of new 5G Standalone could boost productivity among SMEs. It modelled the competitiveness of 17 European countries in relation to small business growth using three metrics: 5G coverage, SME adoption of 5G-enabled technology and 5G speeds.

Putting its study into context, Vodafone noted that with 5.6 million SMEs operating today, they account for 99.9% of the UK’s private sector businesses. Describing them as the pillars of the local communities they serve and the wider economy at large, the operator said it regarded SMEs as playing a pivotal role in driving job creation, sparking innovation, developing regional economic activity, fostering entrepreneurship and diversity, and making significant contributions to the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Yet while Vodafone stressed that the UK remains one of the best countries in which to start and develop a new business, the study found other countries, such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark, were investing in reliable, superfast 5G connectivity at a faster rate.

The UK is currently on course to be the fifth most attractive place in Europe for SMEs to use technology to grow, trailing only Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands. However, Vodafone could leapfrog all of its rivals into second place – behind only Denmark – if it can accelerate the roll-out of 5G Standalone (5G SA) networks, which the operator said had the potential to deliver vast economic savings to small businesses.

In a potential use case, Vodafone suggested small agricultural businesses could see the average farmworker save over three working weeks of their time by utilising 5G SA-enabled technologies – such as soil, weather and equipment monitors – which drive efficiency savings by ensuring that workers can identify and prioritise issues in real time. Deploying 5G SA at speed, and accelerating the development of the technology it enables, would lead to a collective saving of over 37.7 million working hours a year across the sector. This would deliver £112m in annual productivity savings and empower SMEs to reinvest, driving business growth.

Similarly, over two million employees in the retail sector could save over 45.3 million working hours a year by deploying 5G SA-enabled technologies, such as internet of things stock maintenance systems. These are seen as enabling monitor stocktakes and depletion, avoiding laborious manual checks and freeing up workers so they have time to complete other important tasks. Such technology could contribute to productivity savings of £1.85bn a year.

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Offering a call to action, the report warned that there was only a limited window of opportunity to act while the quality of digital infrastructure remains a competitive advantage in the global economy. It concluded that with the UK having historically been a global leader, it was essential that it does not fall behind its European rivals at such a crucial moment.

“UK SMEs are already some of the most advanced in Europe at integrating digital tools into their businesses, and we’d hate to see them get left behind by not having adequate access to best-in-class connectivity such as 5G Standalone,” said Vodafone Business UK CEO Nick Gliddon. “That’s why we are excited by the further opportunities our merger with Three UK can unlock for this crucial sector of the UK economy. It would allow us to roll out a national 5G Standalone network, at pace, to help SMEs across the country take advantage of leading 5G-enabled technologies such as AI and IoT to help boost their efficiency, productivity and, most importantly, growth.”

Emma Jones, CEO of SME support organisation Enterprise Nation, added: “It is essential that the UK seizes the opportunity to improve 5G networks to create a first-class environment for SMEs to grow and scale. Enhancing our digital infrastructure can create critical competitive advantages and productivity savings for SMEs, ensuring that the UK stays ahead of the regional competition.”

Tina McKenzie, Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) policy and advocacy chair, said: “Strong and reliable mobile connectivity is essential for small businesses to thrive and grow. Yet, we often hear that unreliable mobile connectivity remains a big obstacle for small firms and the self-employed, and is particularly disruptive for productivity in rural areas.

“As technology develops, the need for a decent connection is even more vital. Rolling out 5G Standalone to all areas of the country quickly and efficiently will help small firms stay at the forefront of technological innovation, improving work rates as well as ensuring the UK remains a great place to start and run a business.

“Indeed, 5G, rather than 4G, needs to be prioritised for some hard-to-reach rural areas where fixed broadband is sometimes near-impossible or would result in physical infrastructure intrusions onto some of our most loved and protected landscapes,” she said. “The technology of not just the future, but today, requires 5G-enabling – it’s an essential productivity enabler.”

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