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UK businesses deserve a 5G networked nation

The tech sector needs to coalesce around a unified, positive vision of 5G to establish a proper business case for ultrafast, low latency mobile

The first auction of the 5G spectrum has taken place, EE and Vodafone have both switched on their service with O2 set to follow in October, and Samsung has released a 5G-ready smartphone.

Its introduction is likely to revolutionise data transfers and have a tangible impact on society by helping tackle crimes and enable connected transport systems. In fact, analysts predict that 5G will facilitate $12.3tn in global economic output in 2035.

Elsewhere, new prime minister Boris Johnson has claimed that “fantastic full-fibre broadband” will be “sprouting in every household” in five years at the latest. This will be the next battleground in Britain’s pursuit of innovation and the government must back up the promises it has made to increase spending on modern infrastructure.

However, this apparent progress is unfortunately hollow. Ignore the adverts, new smartphones and corporate events to turn on new networks – 5G is not here yet and the UK is not ready for it.

The key thing to note in this marketing war involving politicians and network providers alike – Three even recently pledged access to 5G for all new and existing tariffs at no extra cost – is that offers like these will come to fruition “when the network becomes available”.

Coverage is non-existent and we are lagging well behind international rivals such as the US and China in adoption and development. Furthermore, the current focus lies too heavily with consumers when it is businesses, both large and small, which have most to gain from the new network.

Despite the noise from the new cabinet, no one is taking responsibility for making the UK 5G-ready. With fast connectivity so crucial to the country’s digital ambitions and the international potential of businesses based in the UK, how can we cut through the complexity and ramp up efforts to swiftly deploy 5G? Put another way, how do we make high bandwidth and low latency the most in-demand technology in the country?

Staying ahead

To stay ahead of other nations and stay at the cutting edge of connectivity, the UK must address the serious concerns that remain around the business case, the value chain, health matters and collaboration between mobile operators, enterprises and local councils by taking three important steps.

First, we need to increase awareness with business and consumers. From enabling VR/AR experiences and next-generation video streaming to driverless cars, the potential is endless. The tech sector needs to send a unified, positive message about the value of high bandwidth and low latency, to ensure society fully understands the benefits.

Second, we need to incentivise mobile operators to realise the value of 5G. After all, it is through them that most businesses will have access to advanced connectivity. However, between the cost to operators of purchasing space in the spectrum and the fact that few have the business models to generate profits from the technology, most won’t see the benefits of investing for a long time.

In contrast to London, Beijing offers spectrum licences for free to Chinese operators and the US pledged to make 5G airwaves among the most accessible in the world.

The industry must promote these benefits to operators, showing them that 5G will open the door to expand their businesses and develop new products based on the internet of things, machine learning and on-demand content, to address the needs of both businesses and consumers in a connected era. The private sector has a role to play in demanding 5G and championing the value to the networks.

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Finally, we must seek greater collaboration between the public and private sectors. The complex blend of stakeholders – mobile operators, businesses, land owners, local and national government – must work together to ensure the successful and swift deployment of 5G across the country.

Although a key challenge will be equity of coverage across the UK, traditionally connected regions such as London will have their own problems with managing an array of boroughs each with their own strategy, priorities and infrastructural considerations.

Much of the scepticism around the 5G roll-out has revolved around technical factors, but there is a great deal more to be done. While it will be crucial to define areas such as privacy policy so that companies are able to access or monetise the data, it is also the communication between and education of the various stakeholders which must accelerate so that all of them understand and show support.

Ultimately, for UK businesses to not only compete on the international stage, but thrive at the forefront of innovation, the 5G roll-out must be a priority in the eyes of the government and the tech industry.

The UK is truly becoming a tech nation in terms of its talent and the new, dynamic businesses it is creating. Our future as a world-leading digital economy relies on the speedy implementation of 5G networks.

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