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Three years left to prep UK’s mobile network infrastructure for 5G

The UK’s mobile networking infrastructure needs a radical overhaul to get ready for the first 5G mobile networks, says O2 CTO Brendan O’Reilly

Britain’s existing 4G mobile infrastructure will soon begin to creak under the strain of the amount of mobile data being consumed, and urgent work is needed to ensure networks can cope with the strain of future 5G networks, according to network operator O2, which has called for a renewed cross-sector focus on collaboration.

Speaking to Computer Weekly, O2 Telefónica CTO Brendan O’Reilly said the ability of all four of the UK’s mobile network operators (MNOs) to meet the demands of Britain’s data-hungry consumers and businesses – data usage over O2’s network alone is more than doubling every year – was becoming more challenging.

“If the number of cars on Britain’s roads was doubling every year, we would be talking in terms of a crisis,” he said. “We need to start treating digital infrastructure similarly.

“The hard fact is that there is only so much spectrum available and if data use continues to grow at current rates we will see an impact over the next 24 to 36 months. On average a new site in London takes 36 months to secure and build, so we need to plan now.

“Some 36 months from now it’ll be the end of 2019 and we’ll be at the doorstep of 5G, so we need to be at the forefront of that,” he added.

O’Reilly called for a renewed focus on connectivity across the whole country, involving not just the government and the MNOs, but local councils, businesses, landowners and property developers – and even users.

He set out four key elements of a pre-5G mobile strategy that need to fall into place in the critical three-year timescale.

First, the government needs to address planning laws pertaining to the construction and placement of mobile masts – O’Reilly welcomed the Digital Economy Bill including clauses to help make network planning easier, but said it did not prioritise mobile infrastructure enough.

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Secondly, he proposed, local authorities need a better understanding of the benefits of connectivity to the lives of their citizens in areas such as provision of health and social care, and education.

Thirdly, property developers need to be brought on board to ensure mobile connectivity is thought about at the beginning stages of a building project, not at the end.

Finally, concerted action needed to be taken, led by Ofcom, to liberalise the availability and ease of access to dark fibre networks through network owners such as BT; and to govern the use of small cell technology, which will form a core element of 5G networks and support future demands made by internet of things (IoT) sensors.

“We need to keep things moving. Korea will be 5G ready by the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul, and Japan for the 2020 Olympics. We need to be thinking about the next five to 10 years,” he said.

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