Fifth generation technology for cellular networks – what we all now refer to as 5G – is being developed across the world, with many governments citing the technology as essential to the future success and competitiveness of their economies.
Views on the actual capabilities of 5G and what solutions it can provide vary, and anecdotal evidence suggests that understanding of the technology by policymakers, businesses and consumers is still relatively limited, but this has not stopped the 5G from becoming a 'must have' in several countries.
5G is a wireless technology, distinguishing it from fibre broadband connectivity, which relies on underground cables. However, the UK government recognises that full-fibre networks and 5G are complementary technologies, and that for 5G to succeed, it will require dense fibre networks for base station backhaul.
The OFCOM story so far ...
The UK's telecoms regulator, OFCOM, has outlined plans to incentivise investment in full fibre products and deployment programmes, to build the necessary infrastructure to enable 5G.
- introducing different levels of regulation, depending on the competition in a particular geographical area;
- incentivising Openreach (the division of telecoms company BT tasked with maintaining the UK's communications infrastructure) to replace copper wires with full fibre networks;
- introducing a flexible spectrum allocation policy to foster rural coverage solutions;
- and encouraging private enterprise to establish private 4G LTE/5G networks.
The UK government aims to have 15 million premises connected to full fibre by 2025, with 'gigabit capable' network coverage across all parts of the country (with the exception of an estimated 10% of mostly remote rural premises) by 2033. And although full fibre coverage in the UK is increasing at its fastest ever rate (more than tripling over the last three years), fibre to the premises/home/building (FTTP/H/B) connections significantly lag those in many other countries.
On 23 April 2020, the FTTH Council Europe published its annual ranking of European countries with the strongest subscriber penetration of full fibre FTTH ultrafast broadband ISP networks, with the UK ranking 33rd out of 35 countries listed (ahead of Serbia and Austria) at 2.8% penetration.
While the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown have presented financial, practical and even some reputational barriers to the planned rollout of 5G, in the UK and in other countries, they have also exposed the need to enhance internet connections to people's homes to enable companies to operate 'business of usual' remotely, if necessary.
Despite the economic slowdown caused by COVID-19 and the corresponding squeeze on public finances, indications are that 5G investment remains a priority project for the UK government.
Regulation needs commercial drivers
The success of the UK's 5G rollout largely depends on private sector providers making the necessary investments to bring fibre connections into homes and businesses. This requires them to replace legacy fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) technology, which uses copper wires for the final few metres of connection and is consequently incapable of delivering ultrafast internet connection.
A number of major telecoms providers have already made ambitious commitments to help deliver 5G, underpinned by OFCOM's promise of a supportive regulatory approach to encourage investment in full fibre. Opening up access to ducts and poles operated by Openreach, and a geographical assessment of competition among Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) providers by postcode, are among the changes OFCOM has announced.
While competition between fibre providers needs to be fostered to ensure value for consumers, where competitive network build does not make sense, regulation should allow for appropriate recovery of costs. Plans to liberalise spectrum access and the introduction of local access licences should encourage a greater level of investment from private network operators and improve levels of coverage in rural areas, some of which are not commercially viable without these changes. The UK government is also being urged to invest more in improving digital skills among students and business owners to help them understand how companies can adapt and upgrade their operations with technologies like 5G.
And commercial stakeholders will also need to work with telecoms providers to ensure 5G connectivity serves their particular needs. For example, global cross-industry group the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) is working with TMT companies on their plans to install 5G on key transport routes across Europe – such as freeways, main roads, and rail tracks. The aim is to define common standards to ensure mobile connectivity meets specific requirements for interconnecting the various transport users and for automated driving.
Autonomous vehicles is likely to be a focus area for future investment, as well as smart utilities, the broader Internet of Things (IoT) and outdoor connectivity for machinery and medical operations. Smart cities, which will rely on enhanced technological as well as physical connectivity, are also a major area of development under the UK's industrial strategy.
'High-risk vendors' not helping
Finally, the UK government has also laid down certain conditions regarding the involvement of certain 'high risk vendors' in the UK's 5G networks. This approach will present challenges and significant costs to operators with significant amounts of foreign-made equipment already in place, particularly if such equipment is embedded within their core networks.
A document published in January 2020 by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) indicates that the UK networks will have three years (from 2020) to comply with government caps on the use of certain foreign equipment. But some telecoms companies have indicated this process may take longer if the impact on network users is to be kept to a minimum and have warned that removing foreign kit from networks could slow the upgrade to 5G significantly.
So while a favourable regulatory environment free from unnecessary barriers is essential to achieving nationwide 5G connectivity in the UK, commercial drivers are also an indispensable part of a successful rollout.