UK government details its 5G cunning plan

The UK government has unveiled its 5G strategy, expanding on fairly generic statements in the Spring budget.

5G and the need for full-fibre were two strong messages which came out of the Spring Budget announcement, though details on how this would be achieved were relatively thin on the ground. The 5G strategy has gone someway to explain how the UK plans on fulfilling its lofty technology ambitions, and to be fair, there is weight behind the ideas.

“We want to enjoy the benefits of new 5G networks early on: faster, more reliable connections; new, valuable services from connected cars to smart factories; and more highpaid, high-skilled jobs,” said Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Karen Bradley and Commercial Secretary to the Treasury Lucy Neville-Rolfe in a joint executive summary.

“But this can only happen with private sector investment in new networks, engaged customers and innovative service providers. The Government’s job is to create the environment for this to happen. We are acting now to ensure that consumers have excellent connectivity across the UK.”

Firstly, the government will be launching a new national programme of 5G testbeds and trials, to understand the economics of infrastructure deployment in different scenarios and locations and how infrastructure can be deployed in a cost-effective way. The trials will take place in both rural and urban environments with a particular focus on interoperability, replicability and openness.

While some may moan about the idea of the government going into yet another research project to understand how to do things properly, there does seem to be a much more solid foundation to these claims and ambitions. There is more weight and substance behind the voice than we’ve seen before; don’t hold your breath just yet, but this might actually be progress towards the digital economy.

The investment will start with £16 million research facility to test out new 5G technologies and build the business case, before running trials over the course of 2017 and 2018, and finally an end-to-end trial in early 2018. Following these milestones, the initiative will also support a number of testbed spokes from 2018/19.

All these trials will help the government understand the economics of 5G, as well as how the regulatory environment will need to change over the coming months to facilitate the new technologies. Flexibility is key here, as the government has cottoned onto the idea that technology moves faster than rule makers; new regulations will have to be adaptable to the moving target. This is an area which has been swept under the rug to date, so it is nice to see that the bureaucratic machine is not simply an afterthought.

The ambitions here are to have a better understanding of the regulatory environment by the end of 2018, which can also tie into the work from the National Cyber Security Centre. Without sounding repetitive, it is nice to see security isn’t going to be an afterthought either.

Simply stating the UK wants to be the best is possibly one of the most shallow statements which an MP can come forward with; what country doesn’t want to compete with the best in the world? However, the UK does perhaps have more need than many, considering the implications of Brexit, and decline in influence in recent years.

While the numbers could certainly be bigger, £16 million to invest in 5G exploration is not really a significant amount, the UK is already in a solid position. Nokia is looking very cosy next to the Bristol is Open initiative, the University of Surrey has excellent research facilities and political ties to China are bringing Huawei ever closer to the UK economy.

Somewhere in the middle of all the political PR, corporate jostling and customer desperation for a modern infrastructure, there is a recipe to make the UK a 5G force. Let’s just hope we’re not too late to the party and haven’t left too much catching up to do.

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