The auction for the latest chunk of the UK’s radio spectrum has closed and the networks are now hoping their bids will enable them to roll-out next generation 5G services.  Apart from raising almost £1.4m for the Chancellor of the Exchequer you might be saying “so what?”. 


5G has the potential to transform our daily lives – but only if the UK is at the forefront of this move to the next generation of wireless network technology.

Dave Millett of independent telecoms consultancy Equinox takes a looks at the issues surrounding 5G and potential impacts of its roll out.

Let’s start with the benefits: it will be fast – about 10 times faster than 4G.  Meaning a high definition film should only take about a second to download; there will be less latency than 4G. This is important in relation to future technologies like driverless cars or a surgeon remotely controlling a laser during surgery; and 5G offers greater capacity, which means more devices can connect and communicate at the same time.

That all sounds great but remember the UK is still ranked 54th in the world for 4G coverage, so why will 5G be any different?

The Government has consistently failed to get the operators to improve coverage and yet these same networks, Vodafone, EE, O2 and Three, all won part of the bandwidth needed for the 5G networks.  So, do we really believe that this auction result in a better outcome than the one for 4G?

At least Ofcom recognises some of its past failures. It has said, ahead of its next auction in 2019, that “To ensure widespread improvements in mobile coverage across the UK, we are proposing to attach coverage obligations to some of the licences we will award for the 700 MHz band ….  These obligations will require winning bidders to roll out improved mobile coverage in rural areas and the nations.”

But these obligations are not attached to the 5G auctions.

Forcing networks to offer free roaming across the networks would dramatically improve the situation. You can roam free across Europe – but not in the UK.

The Government is talking about 5G services being launched in 2020 at the earliest – while the USA and many countries in Asia are already way ahead of us.

South Korea had a trial 5G network operational for the recent Winter Olympics and Japan is planning to deploy it as a key part of the 2020 Summer Olympics, and the USA is expected to have 5G available in some cities as early as Q4 of 2018.

And then there’s China; a recent report by The GSMA (the body that represents the worldwide mobile communications industry) estimates that by 2025 China will have 40% of the worldwide 5G connections – and this will have a hugely positive impact on jobs and China’s GDP.

The UK Government regularly talks about the strength of the country’s digital economy. But for that to be a reality and to succeed, grow and attract inward investment, we need the right infrastructure; we need to be at the forefront, not lagging behind the rest of the world.

Plus, all this investment in 5G technology will need to be paid for. Yet the network operators are facing revenue pressures from applications such as WhatsApp and have seen text messages volumes fall by 40% over the last 4-5 years. Which means the cost is likely to be passed to us, the customer. And, of course, we’ll all need new 5G compatible phones. So, when signing your next mobile phone contract consider how long you’ll keep it, whether you really want the phone as well, or if you’d be better off going SIM free.

5G represents a great opportunity for the UK to make up for the mistakes it made over 4G and the current terrible lack of broadband availability. This is the time to become genuine leaders in Europe.  But the government and Ofcom need to hold the operators accountable for failures to deliver and they need to be radical about releasing the capacity within the spectrum.   In the same way the UK encouraged the oil industry with tax breaks perhaps it’s time we should be looking to do something similar with companies hoping to exploit the capabilities of 5G.

dave_millettAbout the Author

Dave Millett has over 35 years’ experience in the Telecoms Industry.  He has worked in European Director roles for several global companies.  He now runs Equinox, a leading independent brokerage and consultancy firm. He works with many companies, charities and other organisations and has helped them achieve savings of up to 80%.  He also regularly advises telecom suppliers on improving their products and propositions. www.equinoxcomms.co.uk Twitter: @equinoxcomms  LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/dave-millett/2/17b/a94