UK needs 5G revolution, says new NIC report

With mobile connectivity a necessity, the government must play an active role to ensure that basic services are available everywhere and make railways and city centres 5G ready as quickly as possible, writes Peter Campbell.

A new report from the National Infrastructure Commission has slated the UK’s mobile connectivity offering, putting the country in 54th place, behind such pioneers as Romania, Peru, and Morocco, and claiming that the typical user can access 4G 53% of the time. So if you are reading this in Bucharest, Lima, or Casablanca, or are the half of people in the UK who are able to, well done!

Beyond this initial criticism, the report, Connected Future, goes on to make some solid recommendations, including the need for government now to take a more interventionist approach to the provision of digital connectivity. This will mean forging ahead with a drive to switch to 5G, described by Lord Adonis, chair of the NIC, as “…the future – ultra-fast, ultra-reliable it has the potential to change our lives and our economy in ways we cannot imagine today. But the UK is currently languishing in the digital slow lane.”

Judging that the UK mobile market has transformed from a luxury in the 1980s to a necessity today, the need for the government to step in and play an active role in guaranteeing the availability of basic services can no longer be avoided. This extends to areas that are currently considered ‘not-spots’ or areas with low connectivity, such as roads and railways and, in some cases, even town centres.

The report contains seven key recommendations, which are:

  • A dedicated government minister for digital infrastructure, answerable to the BEIS select committee, and tasked with overseeing the digital strategy;
  • Ensuring our motorways are fully connected, meaning timely installation of open infrastructure is required;
  • Trackside infrastructure should be installed so passengers on the rail network are able to access mobile telecommunication services;
  • Local government should actively facilitate the deployment of mobile telecoms infrastructure;
  • A set of realistic metrics representing the level of coverage people actually receive should be established by Ofcom and the government;
  • Ofcom should also undertake a review of the existing regulatory regime by the end of 2017, to ensure it support sharing of telecoms infrastructure;
  • This review should also look to ensure that spectrum allocation and regulatory decisions support a growth model fit for greater shared access and interoperability.

The government is yet to respond to this report at the time of writing, so we have little idea what their thoughts are on the recommendations. It is clear, however, that when taken with the recent judgement by Ofcom that BT Openreach should be spun off to avoid conflicts of interest between service provider and infrastructure operator, there is a direction of travel towards more openness and a stronger hand from the regulating authorities.

These recommendations, it is felt, will improve the UK’s standing and competitiveness in the world, while it should increase productivity as working becomes easier on hitherto unconnected train and car journeys. It is hoped stronger governmental and regulatory oversight will also mean future development of a reliable 5G network will be done in a consistent and overarching way.

This remains to be seen, however. It is unclear, for instance, whether connections will be reliable through trackside infrastructure on train journeys where speeds of up 140mph can be reached at the moment, more when High Speed Rail comes online. Upgrading existing rolling stock will also be costly and disruptive, and with many new sets only at the start of their operational lives, it will be years before new ones with integrated infrastructure can be procured.

We will see in the days ahead how the government plans to take these recommendations, however, this is also a key test of the NIC and how its work will treated by ministers and officials. Accept the findings and all will be well, however if they are rejected, confidence in the body could be shaken and the uncertainty that we thought might finally be banished will return.

So while this might appear to be just about whether you can read this article in the Sahara or South America, and that is part of it, there is much more at stake.

Click here to download the Connected Future report.