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Government 5G investment must address roll-out as well as R&D

Chancellor Philip Hammond announces further round of investment in network connectivity technology, with more cash for 5G and fibre broadband projects, but some say it’s time for the government to invest in roll-out as well as R&D

Network commentators have welcomed the news that the government plans to set aside a further £385m from the multi-billion pound National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) for future investment in mobile and fixed broadband technology, but warned that the government needs to be moving quicker, particularly when it comes to 5G mobile networks.

The package of measures to address the UK’s longstanding network connectivity problems came alongside a wider expansion of the NPIF in the Autumn Budget, from £23bn to £31bn, which will come in the 2022-23 fiscal year.

The new funds will be split three ways, with £160m for 5G mobile networks, £190m for broadband, and £35m for railway communications infrastructure.

Telefónica UK CEO Mark Evans said while the additional funding for 5G was welcome, the government now urgently needed to do more to create a framework to more efficiently and effectively deploy the technology.

“To truly realise this ambition we need greater and urgent collaboration between operators, national and local government, enterprise and communities. Only then we will be able to become a world-leading digital economy,” he said.

Li-Ke Huang, research and technology director at Cobham Wireless, acknowledged that while the government was doing plenty to position the UK as a leader in 5G research and development (R&D), the ultimate success of 5G applications depended more on road-testing new networks imminently.

“For the UK to realise its 5G ambitions, it will require significant investment in infrastructure which will need to extend far beyond the initial amounts promised so far,” added John English, senior product manager for service providers at Netscout.

However, Alastair MacPherson, telecoms partner at Strategy&, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC’s) strategic consultancy unit, said the onus needed to be on the industry as well.

“While today’s announcement expands on previous digital infrastructure investments unveiled by the government, industry will need to commit orders of magnitude more capital in future to fully roll out a 5G network across the nation,” he said.

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“To unlock 5G’s maximum potential for both consumers and organisations, we need to see enough devices in production to drive prices down, enough spectrum made available to enable cost effective network deployment, and a significant increase in the number of base stations near to customers – perhaps 10 to 15 times as many as we have supporting 2, 3 and 4G today,” he added.

This reflected recent comments by BT CEO Gavin Patterson, who spoke at a Huawei event on mobile broadband about the need for operators to develop clear use cases for 5G.

Some of the first 5G projects to be supported through the new funding round will be up and running in the very near future. The government used the Budget to announce plans to spend £10m on setting up a facility to test and prove 5G network security under the auspices of the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

It also announced further £5m on a test of 5G applications and deployment on Britain’s roads, which will build on some of the work already in progress around connected and autonomous vehicle technology.

Local broadband

Meanwhile, local areas around the UK will shortly be able to bid for a share of a new £190m Challenge Fund to encourage the roll-out of full fibre, or fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband services by industry. A pilot scheme is planned for early 2018, which will connect 100 schools in the East Midlands.

The final tranche of funding for railways will support trials of improved mobile communications for rail passengers. This money will be split between upgrading the Network Rail test track at Melton Mowbray, installing trackside infrastructure along the Trans-Pennine route that connects Manchester, Leeds and York, and supporting fibre and 5G roll-out.

The measures came in a Budget that was heavy with support for the UK’s technology industry and reflected the government’s desire to position the UK as a leader in transformational technology, widely held to be crucial to economic success after Brexit. Other measures announced included funding for artificial intelligence and tech skills.

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