5G in the UK — overhyped or has the next era of connectivity really begun?

5G in the UK, eventually, will enable the necessary connectivity to satisfy the demands of industry 4.0, or the fourth industrial revolution.

With so many providers, such as EE and more recently Ericsson and O2 rolling out the next generation of connectivity, spectators would think that this is the year. However, it’s not — 2019 is the year in which 5G in the UK and across the rest of the world will test the new standard. In 2020, results based on the deployment will be seen and improved. New avenues for how it can be applied will also emerge.

Movements towards 5G, the creation of Google Loon and Starlink (made up of 12,000 satellites), will cover every single metre of the planet with bandwidth — transforming the world as humans know it. In 2017, half the planet had access to the internet. In 2022-2025, the whole planet will have access thanks to improved levels of connectivity: that’s four billion new consumers and potential innovators who will come online.

With 5G, “the first thing everybody talks about is how to get to faster upload and download speeds, beyond what’s available today through the mobile networks,” explained Tim Sherwood, vice president, Mobile Segment Strategy at Tata Communications.

There is another element that he looks at, however — how 5G is going to create a better and seamless management across heterogeneous networks: narrowband; low-powered LAN; cellular networks; and Wi-Fi. “In some use cases it may be that 5G helps provide more flexibility on access technology.” Relating to this, 5G will also leverage software-defined network capabilities to better manage underlying access for the particular use cases that organisations have.

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The 5G buzz

Most of the buzz and promotion around 5G surrounds greater speeds and throughput that can support additional use cases.

From Tata Communications perspective, especially because it runs more of an overlay network on top of the local mobile networks of its partners in each country, “some of the ability to do the network slicing and the additional network control is interesting for us to support a wide variety of use cases, not just the higher-end virtual reality or augmented reality vehicles, but to efficiently support some of the lower powered narrowband type opportunities,” continued Sherwood.

5G in the UK

The availability of 5G is dependent on local operators (EE, O2, Vodafone etcetera) — businesses are relying on them to build it out and drive on the capabilities.

These businesses will need connectivity across multiple networks and so while an operator race is developing, it’s important that every network is competitive. Unfortunately, this is not a priority for heated competitors. Over the last two months, operators have revealed their capabilities, but they’re very focused on their own networks. It’s unlikely, they will have even started to talk about how to make that available to other partners or asked how to support sharing across partners within the network, which, as is the case with other technology changes, typically has a second phase.

“Typically, the first phase is to build out and scale up within their own networks; and then the next phase is asking how do you do interoperability and interworking between the networks,” said Sherwood. “That’s even further away from scale. I think it’s going to take some time for it to be in a similar availability or ubiquity as what we have with 3G and 4G today.”

Indeed, based on a number of recent announcements, rollout trials are under way, but it’s probably going to take a couple of years before 5G gets a broader rollout and is widely available.

Are these rollouts, then, simply a PR exercise? Most likely…

What about the rural areas in the UK?

EE announced it was launching 5G in four major cities in the UK: London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, as well as Birmingham and Manchester. Ten more cities will also see 5G later this year, according to the website.

However, with connectivity — 3G and 4G — still an issue for other parts of the UK, are these areas at risk of getting left behind?

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5G will not improve the lack of 3G or 4G coverage in certain locations — operators will need to build out capabilities there. This, ahead of the 5G rollout, must be a priority for the government and operators. A fully connected UK will be more productive and more innovative. And, necessary in enabling industry 4.0.

It might be the case that rolling out a 5G network in these coverage gaps in the UK is easier than building out 3G or 4G capabilities; similar to skipping the landline in Africa and going straight to mobile.

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5G, Huawei and the UK

Huawei’s role in the rollout of 5G in the UK has come under incredible scrutiny — perhaps unjustly. Why has the US banned its companies from using Huawei’s network equipment — is it a decision based on genuine security fears or a tactic in complex trade negotiations?

Despite this controversy, the Chinese-based giant is making huge waves in the wireless industry: it’s the world’s number 1 telecom supplier and second largest phone manufacturer.

The company has been “quite aggressive in terms of their commercial offers and capabilities, which is why they had the success in the growth that they had over the last number of years,” confirmed Sherwood. “But, there are certainly other players in the market that operators can use.

“I guess the challenge will be, as it always is in the telecom operator space, if they already have legacy Huawei infrastructure deployed and they need to go with another vendor moving forward, then you run into some interoperability and interworking challenges. Although the industry does have quite a bit of standards, there’s always a bit of customisation work that comes in.”

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The impact of 5G on the UK economy: transportation

5G or improved connectivity will have a revolutionary impact on the UK economy, across industries. It’s successful rollout will help the country compete with the rest of the world, by boosting productivity and enabling different technologies such as the IoT and AI.

“On the broader country-level impact, there’s a huge individual consumer play associated with 5G for the retail customers that the mobile operators will serve, who are looking for greater capabilities in terms of content on the consumer side of the augmented reality, virtual reality, gaming element,” said Sherwood.

“We’re more focused on the enterprise, particularly in the transportation space.”

In the automative space, it’s important that operators, vehicle makers and fleet management companies work together to ensure 5G capabilities are seamless, efficient and effective.

“Initially, in this space, we see 5G have more of an impact on cost, rather than revenue, initially — that could be from a reduction in costs associated with faster applications and improved operations around traffic management or fleet management,” said Sherwood.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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Industry 4.0