The 5G arms race: the UK’s strategy to become a global leader in 5G technology

By Steven McGinty

On 8 March, the UK Government published their strategy for developing 5G – the next generation of wireless communication technologies.

Released on the same day as the Spring Budget, the strategy builds on the government’s Digital Strategy and Industrial Strategy, and sets out the government’s ambition to become a global leader in 5G.

Accelerating the deployment of 5G networks, maximising the productivity and efficiency benefits to the UK from 5G, creating new opportunities for UK businesses, and encouraging inward investment, are the strategy’s main objectives.

If the UK makes progress in these areas, the strategy argues, 5G infrastructure has the potential to become an enabler of smart city technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and advanced manufacturing, and to support the expansion of the Internet of Things – the interconnection of people, places, and everyday objects.

5G Innovation Network

Although the strategy highlights the enormous potential of 5G, it makes clear that 5G technologies are still in development, and that the majority of funding will need to come from the private sector.

To support the growth of a commercial market, the strategy explains, a new 5G trials and testbed programme will be introduced – through a national 5G Innovation Network – to coordinate the development of 5G services and applications. This programme will help government and private sector partners understand the economics of deploying 5G networks, ensuring that technologies can he delivered in a cost-effective way, and enabling best practice to be captured and knowledge disseminated.

The government is investing an initial £16m into the programme (involving partners such as UK Research and Innovation and the Government Digital Service), and has targeted a trial of end-to-end 5G (high speed connectivity without the need for intermediary services) by 2018. In February, Ericsson announced that they had a successful end-to-end 5G trial in Sweden, alongside partners SK Telecom Korea.

Improving regulations

To support the development of 5G, the strategy suggests that there may need to be regulatory changes, particularly in the planning system. As such, the government has committed to reviewing current regulations before the end of 2017, and then to conduct regular reviews, as partners learn more from their 5G trials.

Local connectivity plans

The strategy highlights the important role local regions play in the deployment of mobile technologies, and explains that the government will be consulting with councils on how planning policies can be used to provide high quality digital infrastructure.

However, it also suggests that there may be a case for introducing ‘local connectivity plans’, which would outline how local areas intend to meet their digital connectivity needs. Interestingly, the strategy highlights that evidence, such as local plans, may be taken into account when the government is making funding decisions for local infrastructure projects.

Coverage and capacity, infrastructure sharing, and spectrum

The strategy accepts that the move towards 5G won’t be as straightforward as the move from 3G to 4G. Instead, 5G technology will be developed alongside the expansion of the 4G network.

In addition, the government has accepted the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC)’s ‘Connected Future’ report, which states that unnecessary barriers to infrastructure sharing between telecommunications companies must be tackled. The strategy states that it will explore options for providing a clearer and more robust framework for sharing.

Increasing the available radio spectrum was also highlighted as key to developing 5G technology. The strategy notes that the government will work with Ofcom to review the spectrum licensing regime to help facilitate the development of 4G and 5G networks.

5G strategy’s reception

Natalie Trainor, technology projects expert at law firm Pinsent Masons, has welcomed the new 5G strategy, explaining that:

“…technology and major infrastructure projects will become much more interlinked in future and that the plans outlined can help the UK take forward the opportunities this will present.”

In particular, Ms Trainor sees the establishment of the Digital Infrastructure Officials Group – which will bring together senior staff from across departments – as a way of providing greater awareness and co-ordination of major public projects that involve digital infrastructure. Ms Trainor also hopes that the new group will encourage the Department for Transport and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to work with industry to develop digital connectivity on the UK’s road and rail networks.

Professor Will Stewart, Vice President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, similarly welcomes the new strategy but highlights that the funding announced will ‘not come anywhere close’ to the investment required to deliver 5G across the UK. In addition, he also makes it clear that coverage and regulatory change will be vital, stating that:

The biggest challenge for government will be improving coverage for all, as 5G cannot transform what it doesn’t cover. And achieving universal coverage for the UK, outside high-capacity urban areas, will not be affordable or achievable without regulatory change.”

Former Ofcom director and author of The 5G Myth, Professor William Webb, has also applauded the government’s plans, even though he is an outspoken critic of the 5G industry. For Professor Webb, the strategy recognises that we are in the early stages of 5G technology, and that there is still a need to develop 4G networks.

Final thoughts

5G technology provides the UK with the opportunity to become a genuinely smart society. Yet, as the strategy acknowledges, 5G is still in its infancy and the idea of a 5G network across the UK is a long way down the road.

The new 5G strategy includes a number of positive steps, such as listening to the recommendations of the NIC report, and exploring the realities of deploying 5G networks. This cautious approach is unlikely to show any significant progress in the short term, but does provide a focal point for academia, government, and industry to rally around.

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Digital Economy Bill – the impact of Brexit

By Steven McGinty

On the 18th March, the Queen’s Speech set out the government’s legislative programme for the year ahead. This included the Digital Economy Bill, a piece of legislation which aims to ensure the UK is a world leader in digital provision.

However, as former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said ‘a week is a long time in politics’. The UK has unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union (EU). The Prime Minister has stood down, leaving a leadership contest in the Conservative Party. And many are uncertain about the future direction of the country.

In this article, I’ll outline the Digital Economy Bill, highlight some of the early commentary, as well as comment on the new political landscape the Bill now finds itself in.

Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill focuses on five main areas. These include:

Fast broadband

The Bill introduces a ‘Broadband Universal Service Obligation’, providing all citizens and businesses with the legal right to have a fast broadband connection installed (of at least 10Mbps initially). This is similar to the telephone landline obligation which currently exists.

There is also an emphasis on cutting the costs and improving the processes for building broadband infrastructure. However, at this stage, there is very little detail on how this might be achieved, apart from introducing a new Electronic Communication Code and making changes to the planning system.


New powers will be given to Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, which will enable them to request data, such as broadband speeds data, which will help consumers in choosing a provider. The Bill also attempts to make it easier for consumers to switch provider and to receive compensation when things go wrong.

Data sharing

Public bodies will be given powers to share information in an effort to combat fraud, which costs the country billions every year. For example, the cost of tax fraud was estimated to be £15 billion in 2011. Other notable measures include encouraging the use of data to provide better public services and identifying and helping people with debts at an earlier stage.

Intellectual property rights

The new Bill recognises that it’s important to support digital industries by addressing the difference in online/offline copyright laws. In addition, the process of registering copyright should be easier and cheaper.

Unsolicited Marketing

Consumers will be given further protection against spam emails and nuisance calls.

Early commentary  

TechUK, industry body for the digital sector, has welcomed the new Bill, highlighting that if implementation is successful, the measures will play an important role in growing the UK’s digital economy. They do, however, note the need for careful consideration when making changes to the planning system and the Electronic Communication Code, alongside stressing the need to ensure changes to copyright law are technically feasible.

Geoff French, chairman of the Enterprise M3 Local Economic Partnership, has also welcomed the advantages the new Bill could bring to business. He highlights that there are still too many urban and rural areas that have low broadband speeds, affecting the growth of the digital economy, as well as the innovation, productivity and competitiveness of the wider economy.

Brendan O’Reilly, Chief Technology Officer at O2 UK, suggests that the planning system needs to be streamlined to allow the expansion of the network. He explains that the process of deploying a mast can take up to three years from start to finish. To emphasis his point, he contrasts the situation in the UK with that in South Korea, where three months to deployment of a mast is considered a long time. And although the new Bill may provide for this change, he highlights the need for collaboration between government and industry, and to think more of ‘UK plc’.

Landowners, however, have been less positive about the new Bill. Under new proposals, landowners would receive ‘compensation’ for masts located on their property; as opposed to the current system where they receive ‘market rate’. As Strutt & Parker telecoms specialist Robert Paul explains, this could mean landowners who used to receive £7,000-£8,000/year, would instead receive £200-£300/year, if classed as compensation. Mr Paul suggests that this could result in landowners taking their case to tribunals, with the result being expensive and time consuming legal challenges to the deployment of masts.

The elephant in the room – Techxit?  

Before the referendum result was announced, Ed Vaizey, UK digital economy minister, stated that there would be a ‘significant economic impact’ if we voted to leave the EU, with uncertainty affecting investment decisions in the UK.

Although it’s too soon to comment on whether this is the case, there has been some notable reaction since the UK voted to leave the EU. Firstly, Ed Vaizey has stated that progressing the Digital Economy Bill will not be delayed as a consequence of the result. However, unconfirmed reports (reported in the media) have suggested that the Bill may have to have its contents altered.

The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that the telecoms industry has been negatively affected by the result, with revenue forecasts being reduced from 29% to 23% by 2020. They highlight, though, that the Digital Economy Bill is still likely to contain regulation that supports increased investment, and that Brexit may even lead to a more favourable investment environment. Yet, the EIU also notes that other broadband targets, such as the elimination of rural ‘not-spots’ may be deemed less important.

At the moment, the reforms in the Digital Economy Bill are still on the agenda. But it’s not clear how future changes will affect its progress. For instance, issues such as the free movement of skilled professionals, the UK’s position in the single market, and the impact on investment for start-ups are all sources of uncertainty.

The Knowledge Exchange will monitor the Bill’s progress as it receives parliamentary scrutiny.

The Digital Economy Bill was introduced into Parliament on 5 July 2016.

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