Compared to other major economies, the UK was slow off the mark in delivering 4G mobile but it is critically behind in terms of deploying fibre optic technology. While this is slowly starting to be put right, other countries are in a much better position to deploy the next big digital wave – 5G.
5G isn’t just another mobile upgrade – it’s a massive step forward combining many advanced network and computing technologies to create the platform on which the world’s digital economy will run generating new jobs, products and services worth trillions of pounds. Everything that can be digital will be - from self-driving cars to advanced health and social care; from next generation manufacturing to smart cities and a better environment.
Mobile and fixed networks have traditionally been separated from a regulatory and business standpoint, yet in reality it’s one integrated infrastructure – mobile access gets you as far as the cell site and after that it’s a fixed network to ‘backhaul’ the information, currently through a range of technologies including microwave. However, if we are really to unleash the power of a 5G based economy, with huge numbers of ‘things’ connected; massive bandwidth; very low latency and high reliability, a major leap in fibre deployment to those cell-sites will be essential.
The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is driving a strategy for increased fibre-To-The-Premises (FTTP) rollout in the UK but its focus is primarily to improve broadband for consumers and businesses beyond the UK’s current hybrid fibre/ copper approach. Yet for 5G to really come into its own, many more fibre connections will be needed to backhaul traffic from 5G cell sites. To maximise higher speeds and throughput, 5G will utilise much higher frequencies than previous generations of mobile but higher frequencies mean shorter coverage, so many more cell sites will be needed. And not just more towers but cell sites on lamp-posts, buildings, street furniture, motorway gantries, overhead power gantries on rail lines etc. etc. which are not connected today. In many of these cases, suitable duct to carry the fibre does not exist, meaning expensive civil works and disruption.
To make 5G a reality, we need a much more ambitious fibre rollout strategy than just upgrading existing broadband connections, but the costs will be significant. At present however, network providers are sceptical about the returns to justify such a major investment. Just as we heard in previous generations of technology “where are the applications” is an often-heard cry. It’s a chicken and egg situation – do you build the infrastructure and hope that ‘they will come’ or do you wait for applications to appear and then invest.
The latter approach is certainly less risky, but it isn’t one that’s viable if you aspire to be a market leader as an economy – players in other countries will pioneer applications in their home market and then simply dominate the UK through replication. Just look at today’s digital behemoths: Netflix in media; Uber in transportation; Facebook in social media; Amazon in retailing. None of them existed until there was a viable digital platform to deliver their services; sadly none of them originated in the UK.
Leaving infrastructure rollout to the market alone is what we’ve done for our current digital infrastructure and it simply isn’t fast enough if we the UK is to be a dominant player in the trillions of pounds that the digital economy will generate.
So to me, that’s where government comes in - to help accelerate infrastructure buildout through its policies and help de-risk commercial investment. It’s good that the UK Government has committed £1bn to catapult our digital economy; it’s good we have a bold digital strategy and an increasing number of technology trials underway supported by some of that cash. But without a nationwide infrastructure to create a home market, those trials won’t turn into big winners, able to dominate tomorrows markets worldwide and we won’t reap the urgently needed benefits of increases in national productivity.
State subsidies are often problematic but we are competing against countries where the state is able to be very closely involved with infrastructure investment. But even in more open democracies, some are being creative about making that flow of capital and infrastructure less speculative. For example the US has made some 5G spectrum freely available and has capped the fees chargeable for the expected mushrooming of small cell sites.
After a decade of austerity, the UK has a major need for investment in everything from the NHS to roads & railways, schools and defence. Correctly channelled that investment could provide a huge boost to creating a winning digital economy that would inherently provide a major support to commercial digital infrastructure investment. That takes joined up thinking between government departments, regulators, operators, software suppliers and innovators.
While everyone is focussed on Brexit, something at least as important is forging ahead – so let’s not miss the boat on the digital opportunity that’s at least as big as the industrial revolution!
Guest blog by Keith Willets, TM Forum Founder & UK5G Advisory Board Member