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It is time for the UK to seize the 5G opportunity

It is time for the UK to seize the 5G opportunity
(Image credit: Pixabay)

On paper, the UK should be in a strong position to maximize the potential of 5G. It was one of the first countries to launch commercial 5G networks with EE and Vodafone last year. It was quick to give out spectrum and provide a good foundation for 5G. It also – as nobody needs reminding – has one of the most important economies in the world.

However, when compared with other nations who rolled out 5G early, the UK is lagging behind. South Korea launched its first 5G network just one month before the UK, and has upgraded 98 percent of its 4G base stations to 5G. By comparison, the UK has not even managed 10 percent.

Of course, the UK has had to contend with incredible uncertainty, both from its departure from the European Union and the debate over high risk vendors in its networks. However, now there is clarity, the UK must look forward and think about how it can achieve 5G leadership.

Adapting to uncertainty

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the critical role of connectivity in modern society. As most countries locked down, it was connectivity that allowed consumers to stay in touch with family, businesses to adapt and survive, students to continue their education with online learning, and patients to have remote consultations.

It quickly became clear that countries that had invested early in networks and digitization were better equipped to adapt. Estonia, for example – having previously rolled out digital IDs for citizens linked to their bank account and tax systems – was able to shift voting online and easily manage furlough schemes when it locked down.

The UK, by contrast, has had its challenges when it’s come to the use of digital technology, receiving criticism for its use of data to tackle the virus, in particular when 16,000 coronavirus cases were missed due to an Excel spreadsheet error. You feel the Government could have benefitted from opening up the challenges to businesses and collaborating on solutions.

5G – with its high-speed, reliable and ubiquitous connectivity – will be a key requirement in the UK becoming successful in digitalization. It will be the platform for innovation that will allow the UK to work with businesses to manage disruption, and find new ways to drive the UK’s economic recovery.

Discovering business use cases

While 5G can have an important role in helping respond to the crises of today, the biggest benefits will be in realizing the business use cases of the future. Many of today’s leading technology disruptors – the likes of Uber, Spotify and Airbnb – were all built on 4G connectivity. The countries that invested early in 4G infrastructure, including the US and China, reaped the rewards economically.

You have to consider that progress from 2G to 3G to 4G were evolutionary, and built primarily on greater speeds. 5G on the other hand is revolutionary, not only enabling superfast gigabit speeds, but offering ultra-low latency, network slicing and the ability to connect to millions of devices. It is a game-changer.

These properties will allow businesses to realize the true potential of industry 4.0, with artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) able to flourish. There are already a number of industrial 5G programs emerging, including our UK Industrial 5G Accelerator with Digital Catapult, for which Siemens, Tharsus and Seagate recently became partners.

So far, results have shown that by using 5G-enabled wireless robotics, factories can achieve savings of up to 20 percent through the reduction of wiring, downtime and labor alone. 5G connectivity will also make factories agile and better prepared for remote operations, which will be crucial as uncertainty continues.

It is our hope that once these 5G business use cases come to fruition, many of the organizations that shifted production lines to take advantage of cheap labor markets, will return to UK shores. 5G will be transformational, and the UK cannot spurn the opportunity to secure its digital future and reap the economic rewards.

Closing the digital divide

Despite the promise in industry, we must remember that the benefits of 5G are not limited to city centers and major manufacturing plants. It can have a transformative impact in almost every sector, from farming to fishing, across all areas of the country.

But the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the digital divide for rural areas across the country. There have been stories of people travelling to car parks, or hiking up hills, just to obtain a 4G signal. The country’s broadband speeds have fallen to 47th in the world, making it amongst the slowest in Europe. The impact is widened inequalities when it comes to online access to jobs, education, and healthcare.

In 5G, you have the answer to the rural connectivity problem. 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), is the highest performing and most scalable solution for businesses and homeowners based outside of cities, and can be deployed faster than fiber.

So far, the UK has fallen short in this area compared to its advanced European counterparts. Switzerland rolled out its first 5G network with Swisscom a month before the UK, and yet it has already achieved 98 percent population coverage. Spain is also setting high 5G standards, with Telefonica Spain targeting 75 percent coverage by the end of 2020.

This is something that needs to be addressed urgently – the sooner we act, the sooner we can realize the opportunities of 5G across different sectors.

Seizing the opportunity

In the 1980s, the UK was at the heart of the telecommunications revolution. It became a global frontrunner by privatizing and liberalizing its telecoms sector, and went on to influence the development of networks across the globe.

Today, the UK underperforms in 4G and broadband coverage, struggles to connect its rural communities, largely missed the opportunity to establish 4G-enabled disruptors, and is in danger of falling behind in 5G.

The country has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity create an open platform for the next generation of innovative companies. It has the technology, world-leading expertise and ecosystem to turbocharge 5G deployment, and in doing so, get back to being a global leader in telecommunications.

But it needs to act now by exploring how it can remove deployment barriers, incentivize investment in rural areas, and inspire 5G innovation across industries.

  • Christian Leon, Head of Networks and Managed Services, Ericsson.