5g – will they come once it’s built?

There’s at least a two-year delay to the 5G network rollout in the UK expected, and that alone will cost taxpayers an additional £2 billion. Despite the gradually increasing roll-out of 5G, 4G is at present still the premier connectivity solution, and will continue to be so for a substantial part of the next decade, until 5G covers enough of the UK to overtake it.

Based on findings from Cisco, published in March of this year, the UK will be behind only Japan and China in the percentage of devices and connections on 5G by 2023 – at 19.5%. However, that’s still far less of the country than originally planned and promised, and far less than the coverage of 4G connections UK-wide.

The new CPS report, which was written by former government advisor and BT head of consumer network communications Alex Jackman and CPS head of business Nick King, found that “over £2bn of public money is supplementing sizeable private investment in civil engineering projects to support 4G mobile networks”. 

This seems odd bearing in mind 5G is supposedly the preferred key connectivity solution, and yet another example of how far behind we actually are.

The UK’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 recession will depend heavily on innovation and the adoption of new technologies, which obviously includes 5G across the whole country as a matter of some importance in economic development and monetary terms. 

Whether it’s reducing industrial emissions, or connecting remote areas of the country through fixed wireless access broadband, or offering businesses faster than ever before data transfer opportunities, the company behind the 5G roll-out in the UK, Ericsson, has a leading role to play not just in 5G deployment but also our broader economic recovery.

Of course, we’re at the tail-end now of an unprecedented eighteen months worldwide, and it’s even given conspiracy theorists a new outlet for their unsubstantiated delusions: tying coronavirus outbreaks to the installation of 5G internet apparatus, or 5g trackers being embedded in the vaccine.

Despite this nonsense, it’s actually the pandemic itself that has led to what amounts to a “significant delay” in the technology’s roll out across the UK – particularly in those rural/hard-to-reach areas. Even where ther’s short-term delays in 5G roll-out, operators and investors could have to reallocate some of the money earmarked for its development to other areas in the interim, thus further delaying the planned deployment.

This delay could also be another blow to the UK’s economic recovery, as companies across the country are now relying on new technologies to boost their opportunities in the coming years. One recent study by STL Partners found 5G could be worth $1.5 trillion to the global economy by 2030, for example, with next generation networks stimulating growth and driving productivity at a time when countries are struggling with reduced activity due to the pandemic.

In the UK, Ericsson has had to take the lead in combating the slow-down of 5G’s roll-out, and drive forward the prioritisation of its deployment at a crucial time for Britain’s economy. 

As Covid-19 forced us all to work from home and to wholesale re-evaluate our personal and business working patterns, his global pandemic has also had the net result of driving greater demand for connectivity, and has highlighted the need for infrastructure investment and wide scale digitalisation across the UK.

Taking this into consideration, Ericsson collaborated with Qualcomm to commission a new report from Analysys Mason, in order to illustrate just how much the UK could benefit – in real terms as well as financially – from an accelerated upgrade to the 5G network.

According to Analysys Mason’s modelling, as a total ‘open innovation platform’, 5G networks in the UK can deliver £14.8 billion in additional economic growth, at a development and implementation cost of just £3 billion – that’s 5 times the return on the UKs initial investment. 

When they considered which sectors of the economy would benefit most, the study clearly showed that Digital Technology Industries, particularly Smart Production and Smart Urban clusters, will enjoy the biggest ROI against outlay, at £4.1 billion and £4.5 billion of increased income respectively.

Interestingly, the same report highlighted that our beleaguered agricultural industry could see a major boost from 5G – something which can’t come soon enough for a now struggling British market. With food shortages across most major supermarkets within the UK already being reported following Brexit, UK farming needs to massively increase production in the coming period to cover for our difficulty importing, and while that alone could see a net cost of £0.6 billion, agriculture could enjoy as much as £2.2 billion in earned benefits via the implementation of 5G.

In order to realise such potential, however, Analysys Mason suggests that the UK will need to drastically up its game as far as development, implementation, and the roll-out overall is concerned. 

When it comes to existing 5G coverage nationwide, the UK lags behind global leaders in Asia,  and is in the middle of the pack compared to neighbouring European economies. While 30% of the whole UK population currently has access to 5G, which in itself is a similar proportion to Germany and Sweden, the UK does fall far behind a number of other European nations, such as the Netherlands, where 40% of their population has access, Finland where half of the population has 5G access, and overall market leader Switzerland, where 90% of the population can use 5G.

Russell Haworth, former CEO of Nominet and Digital Thought Leader, said recently ‘It’s going to be vital for the continued recovery and development of the UK that we see a sincere commitment to speedy roll-out of 5G across the whole of the UK.’

To rectify this, researchers from Analysys Mason recommended to Ericsson and the UK Government that the UK needs to do all it can to remove unnecessary barriers to the rapid commercial deployment of 5G, and to provide targeted public funding where it can truly make a difference i.e. where the ROI figures truly show that the benefits will massively outweigh the costs. 

According to Analysys Mason, just £800 million extra allocated in public funds in the immediate future, could deliver economic benefits worth over £2.5 billion for the UK, providing it’s invested in innovative 5G use cases including fixed wireless access, smart automotive and healthcare.

It’s to be hoped that we begin to see this in action very soon, as it’s clear that the UK overall will benefit greatly from 5G.

Pritam Chakrabortty
Pritam Chakrabortty
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