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Mobile World Congress was all about 5G this year, from 5G and cars to 5G and robots to 5G and augmented reality and so on. The congress was buzzing with discussion around the potential transformative impact that 5G will have on society as a whole.

The stage is set for 5G roll-out, however it is important to understand exactly what that will mean. It is much more than just 4G on steroids. 5G will offer the ability to provide connectivity to huge numbers of devices in a defined area, for example, at a sporting event or concert.

Another key differentiator for 5G is the greatly reduced latency – meaning faster response times. Both these factors position 5G as offering more value over 4G to business than to consumers.

There are, however, a few obstacles to overcome before 5G will reach its true potential. We need to recognise that 5G networks are going to be costly, particularly when contrasted with the more immediate revenue-generating opportunities still to come from 4G.  

So, to encourage early and widespread deployment of 5G, we need operators to share infrastructure and spectrum. We will also need to educate subscribers so they understand the cost/benefit equation for 5G. Ofcom will need to keep a watchful eye as these relationships develop.

5G strategy

The government also has a role to play in maximising the UK benefits from 5G and it has given a positive indication of support for 5G.

In 2016’s Autumn Statement, the government announced considerable funding to extend fibre networks and stimulate the introduction of 5G. In its recent 5G strategy, the government committed to invest in a new national 5G Innovation Network to trial and demonstrate applications.

It’s also worth highlighting the government’s selection of Ordanance Survey to develop a planning and mapping tool to support national deployment of 5G, currently ongoing in Bournemouth.

That is truly far-sighted, when we consider the network planning challenges facing deployment of the “millimetre wave” spectrum necessary to support high-bandwidth applications, where it will be more important than ever for mobile operators to know exactly where and what things are.

For example, the construction materials for modern buildings can have considerable impact on the ability of 5G signals to enter those buildings. Also, given the relatively short range of high-bandwidth 5G communications, it will be essential to know where things such as lamp-posts are – they often aren’t exactly where they were planned to be – to ensure that links in 5G networks really work. That all amounts to an impressive amount of taxpayer investment in 5G.  

Connectivity problems

Further to this, if we are to become a leader in 5G, we must address the sporadic mobile connectivity which is evident to any visitor to the UK.

As in most countries, providing connectivity on a commercial basis in areas of low population density is a challenge. In the UK, however, connectivity problems extend to major roads and rail passengers. The government should look to address this by allowing the public mobile networks access to the communications infrastructure of the public owners of road and rail.

A slightly harder nut to crack is the fact that the UK cannot be a 5G leader unless we efficiently deploy hundreds of thousands of urban “small cells” with fibre ready to go and ideally with the roads being dug up only once.

Those cells would be added to existing “macro cells” and, in addition to traditional rooftops, would need to be on the sides of buildings, street furniture and inside offices and shopping malls.

It can currently take up to two years to get planning approval for a macro cell in central London, and each planning authority (London has 33) has a different process, as they do for issuing permits to dig up roads.

Tackling this process requires strong and consistent collaboration involving central and local government, Ofcom, mobile operators, fibre providers, infrastructure operators and property owners – a partnership that TechUK is currently facilitating. 

5G isn’t a panacea, but if it delivers on 70% of its promise, 5G will be transformative. In global Britain, a UK that is open and eager for inward investment has no choice but to establish itself as a 5G leader. This is within our grasp, but we need to learn from previous mobile technology roll-outs, and ensure a higher degree of collaboration within industry, and between industry and government.

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