by Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications, Mobile UK
5G heralds unprecedented opportunities. But are the right foundations in place, and what reforms are still needed, asks Mobile UK’s Gareth Elliott?
If you were to compare the evolution of the mobile phone with that of mankind, the first mobile phone call, made in 1985, was the moment the mobile industry climbed tentatively out of the primordial soup. Today, with the advent of 5G, with significantly faster download speeds and millisecond latency quicker than a human brain, mobile connectivity stands tall on both legs. To some, 5G is nothing less than the fourth industrial revolution. The possibilities within our grasp are truly phenomenal.
Mobile phones are owned by a staggering 95 per cent of the UK adult population, and in a population of 66 million people there are 92 million active subscriptions. The way we use our phones has changed out of all recognition too. Back in 1985, the first call was a simple analogue connection – yet today, with the introduction of data connectivity, the mobile phone is now an essential part of our daily lives. We shop through mobile applications, we travel via contactless payment, we even search for digital monsters through augmented reality, and we use all this connectivity to communicate and conduct our businesses. The Future Communications Challenge Group report suggests that UK leadership in 5G could result in the opportunity to create £173 billion of incremental UK GDP growth over a ten-year period from 2020 to 2030. It is no wonder that four out of five businesses see mobile connectivity as critical to their operations.
5G is set to revolutionise mobile connectivity once again. This next generation will be ten times faster and 40 times more responsive. It will be more secure and, importantly, offers much lower latency. 3G and 4G networks were primarily designed for personal devices, whereas 5G will integrate with infrastructure, buildings, appliances, vehicles and products. For the first time, mission-critical services such as telehealth, drone deliveries and connected transport will all be possible, while the higher bandwidth will support ultra-high definition video streaming and virtual reality applications. Testing has already begun on 5G sports broadcasts, and in 2018 the first holographic call was made on a UK mobile network.
Operators themselves are busily preparing for the years ahead. As an industry, they are investing £2 billion every year enhancing and expanding their networks. Demand in data is set to grow exponentially, with the average user expected to use 90GB per month in 2025, as opposed to 1.9GB today. Ofcom predicts a thirteenfold increase in data usage over the same period. Key to meeting this demand is ensuring operators are free to build the networks necessary to maintain capacity. This is not simply a matter of installing masts but a complex process that includes many different actors. Operators cannot do this alone.
On a national level, planning laws must be reformed to provide the flexibility to move from 4G to 5G networks. This means ensuring planning laws are straightforward and consistent, without, for example, overly restrictive height limitations and lengthy approvals processes. Mobile and also fixed-line connectivity must be embedded into the strategic planning process, nationally and locally, so that mobile is considered upfront and not as an afterthought. The new Electronic Communications Code, designed to make mobile infrastructure deployment simpler and more cost-effective, must be allowed to bed in and operate as intended, with clear guidance to local authorities. High rents for mobile masts could seriously hamper rollout of 5G. The UK is already nine times more expensive to acquire and design sites in than Nordic countries, and four times more expensive to build passive site infrastructure. Transmission can be up to six times more expensive than in Austria, Sweden and Denmark.
Mobile UK calls on the Government to prioritise mobile infrastructure, and even consider a more radical approach, such as national incentives and public intervention, to co-invest with mobile operators and to assist in the roll-out and installation of mobile networks, particularly in harder to reach areas. After all, the connectivity dividend can often be far higher than other public infrastructure projects which impact far deeper on the public purse. Building on these principles the industry has come together to propose a Shared Rural Network which seeks to go further than current proposals set out by Ofcom as part of its 700MHz spectrum auction. This new innovative approach addresses the difficult economics of deployment to harder-to-reach areas and builds in partnership. The case is now clear for mobile infrastructure.
Building Mobile Britain is a campaign created by Mobile UK seeking to work with national and local government, as well as interested industry groups to overcome the challenges we face with expanding the existing mobile networks, while also developing innovative services for customers.