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Industry backs call for government action on 5G

The mobile industry has rallied around this week’s National Infrastructure Commission report on 5G and telecoms

The mobile industry has welcomed the findings of a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report on 5G mobile networking, released earlier this week, saying that the Commission’s recommendations echoed their own feelings on the future of mobile networking in the UK.

The report, commissioned in March 2016, set out to consider what the UK needed to do to make itself a world leader in 5G deployment, and to ensure the country could take early advantage of the applications around 5G connectivity.

The Commission made a number of practical recommendations to this end, calling for the government to: appoint a digital champion backed by a dedicated cabinet minister; urgently address those parts of the country that still cannot receive a 4G service; and ensure that 5G infrastructure can be easily deployed along key rail routes and roads, and around towns and cities.

NIC chair Lord Adonis said the UK was still languishing in a “digital slow lane”, and added: “5G offers us a chance to start again and get ahead. If the government acts now, we can ensure our major transport networks and urban centres are 5G ready in time to give British industry every chance to lead the world in exploiting its applications.”

Raj Sivalingam, executive director of telecoms and spectrum at TechUK, agreed that it was essential for the UK to have the mobile networks necessary to support the economy.

“TechUK has long called for cabinet-level leadership for digital to provide strong leadership to mobilise and co-ordinate delivery across government departments and the public and private sector,” said Sivalingam.

“We are pleased by the NIC’s recognition of the importance of bringing together the important threads of digital policy that are dispersed across Whitehall to deliver a single digital strategy.”

National issue

The criticality of mobile networks to the UK’s daily economic life meant that the NIC’s findings resonated across the IT industry, not just in the telecoms sector.

Lucy Dimes, CEO of Fujitsu in the UK and Ireland, was one of a number of supplier leads to join the debate, saying that fast, reliable mobile networks would help more businesses to innovate in areas such as the internet of things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Dimes also welcomed the NIC’s call for greater involvement from Westminster. “Government must lead the way in ensuring the necessary infrastructure is in place for UK businesses to take full advantage of this technology when it arrives and avoid being left behind on the world stage,” she said.

Marc Waters, UK and Ireland managing director at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, took a similar line. “Technology is evolving rapidly and is disrupting every industry,” he said. “With workforces increasingly becoming more mobile and more and more devices being connected, it is essential that we have a robust networking infrastructure that can cope with the demands placed on it. A strong infrastructure will also put the UK in a good position to successfully navigate the industrial revolution 4.0.”

William Newton, EMEA director at WiredScore, a specialist provider of connectivity data to corporate real estate brokers and tenants, pointed out that after the generally inconsistent deployment of 4G across Europe earlier in the decade, a lot of the work already being done to ensure that 5G roll-out was smooth and up to standard was now being undertaken out of the European Union (EU). This might cause problems for the UK’s roll-out after Brexit, unless this was considered right away, he said.

“Earlier this year, in the EU State of the Union address, President Juncker proposed a significant overhaul of the EU’s telecoms, which included ‘more stringent requirements to use spectrum effectively and efficiently’,” said Newton.

“The EU has demonstrated itself as the global leader in 5G regulation and development. The great challenge for the UK post-Brexit will be to ensure it can continue to align itself with the European Commission’s regulations to ensure it remains at the forefront of 5G development and distribution – even if we are no longer sat at the table.”

Improving 4G

The NIC report also contained harsh words for the mobile industry itself, claiming that the UK ranked below Albania and Romania for 4G network availability.

However, mobile network operator (MNO) EE said some of the report’s data did not reflect the reality of 4G coverage.

“It is unclear why the report only considers areas to be covered by 4G when all four operators provide signal,” said a spokesperson for the BT-owned operator. “4G coverage varies widely by operator, and not all operators have invested so heavily in rapidly rolling out 4G across the UK.

“Having gone from 50% to 75% 4G coverage this year alone, EE continues to believe that rolling out 4G coverage across the entire UK, while we prepare the future of 5G, is fundamental in today’s digital society.”

Nevertheless, EE broadly welcomed the report, saying that, by and large, it confirmed its own views on the future of mobile networks in the UK.

“It is vital that people are connected to 4G right across the UK, that coverage reporting is clear and consistent, and that a solid foundation is created for future 5G leadership,” said the EE spokesperson.

“That is why we have committed to take 4G coverage to 92% of the UK by later next year. Increased government focus on mobile infrastructure is vital to removing the many barriers we face, together with a more constructive relationship between mobile operators, landowners and those responsible for our railways.”

Read more about 5G

Three acknowledged that there were genuine concerns over the poor state of 4G network coverage in parts of the UK, but said this a situation had arisen because of market imbalance.

“One of the main causes of the UK’s poor 4G coverage has been the historic imbalance in mobile airwaves,” said a Three spokesperson.

“Ofcom’s proposed spectrum auction rules will only make the situation worse by allowing that imbalance to continue beyond the next auction. We will face the same issues with the roll-out of 5G, with consumers and businesses suffering as a result.” 

TechUK’s Sivalingam suggested that comparisons with Albania and Romania were unfair, and said that when pricing, competition, take-up and coverage were taken as a whole, the UK compared well with the best countries in the world.

“Nevertheless, we support NIC’s underlying message that we must remain focused on ensuring great connectivity for the 2020s and that this can only be achieved with government at central and local levels, regulator, industry (mobile, fixed and infrastructure providers) and landlords playing their parts,” he said.

Findings disconnected

Phil Sorsky, vice-president of wireless for CommScope in EMEA, said the NIC report should have focused on 4G ahead of 5G, and that its findings were disconnected from the real issues.

“Why are we talking about 5G beyond 2020 when today there is an opportunity to address consumer and economical requirement for 4G coverage?” he said. “With investments in site densification and deeper fibre deployments, we can support increased bandwidth requirement for backhaul and fronthaul connectivity now.

“Yes, the 5G roll-out will, of course, be important and we all understand the need for continued investment. But coverage blackspots won’t be addressed by 5G for several years after its launch, therefore these needs are likely to be met by LTE-A and LTE-Pro coverage for many years to come.”

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