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Consistent service, not speed, key to UK’s 5G future, say researchers

Government should avoid setting unrealistic connectivity requirements for 5G mobile broadband, and focus instead on ensuring reliable and consistent coverage, says a University of Cambridge study

The government is in danger of setting unrealistic speed and connectivity requirements for future 5G mobile broadband networks – especially in rural areas – and should focus instead on trying to guarantee reliable and consistent universal coverage in order for the UK to fully exploit the potential of 5G, according to a new report from the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School.

The ultrafast speeds promised by 5G mobile networks, which are widely expected to be in excess of 1Gbps, are often the most important areas of focus for technology companies, government ministers, and the national media when discussing the emerging network standard.

However according to the study’s co-authors, Edward Oughton, a research associate in technology modelling at Cambridge Judge Business School’s Centre for Risk Studies, and Zoraida Frias of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, while speed is important, consumers may not require such speeds any time soon in order to conduct everyday tasks on the internet.

Oughton and Frias said that based on a model patterned on the rollout of current 4G long term evolution (LTE) networks, 5G could cover 90% of the UK population with a 50Mbps service by 2026, but at the cost of leaving out 3.6% of the population by 2030.

Their study, The cost, coverage and rollout implications of 5G infrastructure in Britain, published in the Telecommunications Policy journal, added that furthermore, if the 5G roll out is left to the market, the increasing cost of deployment to parts of the country with low population density would leave out 10% of the population by 2026.

Oughton and Frias argued that unless a new killer application emerges for 5G, a purely market-based roll out of 5G would tend to cover only urban and suburban areas for the foreseeable future, so the government should be very cautious when it comes to projecting large headline 5G speeds in rural areas, and it may be more appropriate to focus on ubiquitous and reliable coverage with a more modest headline speed.

“We don’t need higher and higher headline speeds, but what we do need is reliable connectivity – to ensure we can reap the productivity benefits of new digital applications, platforms and services,” said Oughton.

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“We haven’t been able to achieve this with 4G LTE in the UK as patchy reception often leads to disruption,” he said.

“Operators can struggle to deploy new base stations and the industry has been experiencing declining revenues, meaning there isn’t much capability for large scale infrastructure investment.”

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