The demand for ubiquitous, fast mobile connectivity is unquestionable.
Almost two years ago, the UK’s communications regulator Ofcom coined the UK a ‘smartphone society’. This year it is expected that four in five adults in Britain will own a smartphone as they replace computers and laptops as the essential go-to hub.
No wonder people’s desire for mobile data has soared. In the last year alone, the number of people signed up to 4G contracts almost doubled to over 39m, allowing them to connect and do business wherever they are.
It’s clear that a more connected society is a more productive one, able to communicate and trade more easily, to attract overseas business and create new jobs, helping to support and grow the digital economy. Our own research tells us that an effective rollout of 5G connectivity will add over £7bn a year to the economy by 2026, and that it will promise a far quicker return on investment than fibre broadband.
Of course, we know that 5G connectivity is still some way off. And while it promises a range of unprecedented benefits – from telecare health applications to smarter cities – we should be clear that these benefits won’t be achieved without collective investment and collaboration to lay the right foundations.
If we are to maintain the UK’s reputation as a digital leader, we need to be on the front foot and accelerate investment now. Yet while the world’s leading economies recognise that mobile connectivity is the future, the UK still needs to do more to prioritise mobile in order to be able to fully realise the potential benefits.
This approach risks leaving us behind in the digital race. South Korea – widely recognised as a leader in digital – committed to mobile infrastructure from the outset and is now the only major market in the world to reach 100 per cent 4G coverage. Their approach to digital infrastructure has given them a significant competitive advantage over other countries, including the UK.
They now have the freedom to deploy mobile connectivity almost anywhere, which is only possible because operators and infrastructure providers work collaboratively to deliver better digital infrastructure.
The government’s 5G strategy is a positive step towards improving the UK’s digital economy, but now is the time to prioritise mobile. There are two key areas that the industry must address to deliver world-beating mobile, and ultimately 5G, connectivity across the UK.
Firstly, we need a fair and competitive auction to allow the mobile industry to successfully evolve towards 5G. Competition drives innovation and investment. However, the UK currently has one of the largest spectrum imbalances in the world, with one mobile network operator holding more than 35 per cent of all usable spectrum.
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Rebalanced spectrum holdings will allow all operators to continue to deliver for their customers, creating a framework where all operators will feel compelled to invest into the 5G evolution.
We also need to establish partnerships between operators, national and local government, enterprise and communities. The onus should be on creating a framework that facilitates the efficient and effective deployment of mobile networks. This will help catalyse the delivery of a better connected experience for customers throughout Britain. It will support operators and infrastructure providers in accelerating infrastructure improvements, removing blackspots and improving connectivity across the country.
Ultimately, we need a more supportive planning regime that permits operators to roll out digital infrastructure faster and more cost effectively.
Up to 500,000 small cells will be needed for 5G in London alone. And while steps have been made by reforming the Electronic Communications Code as well as the Town and Country Planning Act, further action needs to be taken to get the right number of sites available to roll out 5G technology effectively.
The latest Budget announced further revisions to planning laws which will make it easier to improve mobile coverage across transport networks.
This should help to eradicate those annoying blackspots which cause you to lose connection on train journeys and will play an important part in increasing coverage for consumers.
However, an updated planning system should embed mobile connectivity development into the plans for other infrastructure projects, including shopping centres and new housing developments.
For the government to ensure the UK achieves its goal in becoming a global leader in digital connectivity and 5G, it must recognise the full potential mobile connectivity will have for individuals, business and communities. We need to start collaborating and addressing the barriers now so that we can lay the foundations for a world-beating digital future for the UK that benefits consumers and businesses alike.