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5G Passes Major Milestone of One Billion Connections – What Comes Next?

Mobile UK

6 min read Partner content

 5G deployment continues apace, both in the UK and across the world, with one billion connections achieved globally at the end of 2022. According to Strategy Analytics, 5G networks covered 36% of the world’s population at the end of December 2022. 85 networks are live across the world and over 300 devices are now commercially available. In the UK Ofcom reported in its Connected Nations report that the level of coverage provided by at least one Mobile Network Operator (MNO) now stands at 67 – 77% in 2022 and that two MNOs have reached their own milestone of covering over half the population.  

Joe Barrett, president of the GSMA, commented, “Against an unprecedented backdrop of a global pandemic and economic disruption, the mobile industry has continued to see more spectrum allocated to 5G, more networks deployed, and more devices become commercially available; a momentum that has been mirrored in the growth in 5G subscriptions around the world.”

These are significant milestones and highlight how 5G is fast becoming embedded into our societies; but this is only the start of the journey. 5G is only in its first wave of deployment. In this initial wave 5G is being deployed alongside 4G, so called hybrid-5G.  

It is in the next stage of rollout, the second wave, that we can expect to experience the next level capabilities that will significantly change the way not only we as people communicate but the way devices and machines communicate.

While the first wave has been driven mainly by consumer use, such as enhanced mobile broadband, and the need to build in future capacity to enable much greater data provision and device connectivity, the second wave will open up mobile networks to a much wider use base, particularly industrial and business use.

This second wave of 5G deployment is critical. Advanced 5G, and mobile networks beyond it, will become a significant foundation to our future economic activity. Governments across the world recognise this and have set out ambitious targets for 5G deployment. In the UK, a target has been set for the majority of the population to have access to 5G by 2030. But in recognising this the question that must also be asked is whether in the UK we have the right regulatory framework and investment environment in place to support the rollout of these vital networks?

In 2018 the UK Government took the bold decision to accelerate the fixed market with impressive results driven by the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review. In 2023 it is now an opportune time to take a similarly fresh approach to the mobile market and in the Wireless Infrastructure Review it must be welcomed that the Government is taking steps towards this ambition.

Action to be taken

The challenges, however, are significant. The investment capabilities of the mobile operators are challenged by declining average revenues per use (ARPU) while data usage and expectations continue to rise year on year. This places significant demands on the operator’s abilities to earn sufficient revenues to invest in next generation 5G networks, while also placing stress on the capital markets. The Digital Connectivity Forum, in its recent report The Investment Gap to Full 5G Rollout, found that there is an investment gap between matching customer demand and achieving advanced 5G capabilities of between £10 - £25 billion.

It is therefore important that not only to maintain, but to enhance investment levels to narrow the gap highlighted by the Digital Connectivity Forum, and to take advantage of 5G’s enhanced and transformational capabilities, the Government needs to take bold and decisive action.  

The Wireless Infrastructure Strategy presents an opportunity and Mobile UK will be putting the forward the views of the industry. In doing so the following areas should be prioritised.

Planning reform

Recent updates to the Permitted Development Rights regime are welcome but further updates to the planning regime continues to offer the quickest way to accelerate investment and deployment, recognising mobile infrastructure as critical to the nation. Planning must be continually monitored to ensure that it is not just aligned with the technological curve but that it is ahead, and not playing continual catch up as it has with 3G and 4G.

Digital Champions

Mobile UK is campaigning for central Government funding to establish local authority Digital Champions. Research has shown that these roles are a highly cost-effective way of navigating internal complexities at a local level, streamlining relations between the industry, breaking down barriers, and unlocking industry investment. They also create local leadership to champion mobile connectivity and to break down barriers and misconceptions and smoothing the way for mobile deployment.

National and local Leadership for mobile connectivity

Central and Local Government needs to be a better advocate of the importance of mobile connectivity both at a national and local level. Local and national leadership is required to help explain to residents and businesses how mobile connectivity will not only help them live better while being connected but is also massively important to ensuring an area can function in the modern world, something which became particularly apparent during the recent pandemic.

Remain firm and push forward legislation supporting mobile infrastructure, recognising it as Critical National Infrastructure

Legislation such as the Product Security and Telecoms Infrastructure Bill needs to move to the statute book quickly to provide certainty to the industry and to ensure deployment costs are sustainable. Going forward legislation must recognise or have built in support for mobile rollout as for other critical infrastructure such as utilities.

Review the net neutrality regulations

Net Neutrality is the concept of enabling free and equal internet access to all. While the principle is sound, change is required as net neutrality rules are now obstructing these aims. The regulations around net neutrality must be updated to reflect how modern networks are used and operated to enable mobile operators to retain value and further incentivise innovation and investment.  

Provide a longer-term spectrum pipeline

Spectrum availability is central to ensuring network capacity meets customers’ data needs. Mid-band (6GHz) will be hugely significant for 5G investment plans and making it available to mobile is central to combatting congestion in urban areas and the wider economy. Relying on mmWave spectrum (used for high-speed wireless communications) to meet the needs of the networks is not technically or commercially viable.    

Opening the discussion for public investment to bridge the 5G investment gap

Government must prioritise public investment in 5G, recognising it offers significant public value and can provide comparable results in stimulating private investment to that already achieved in the fixed sector.

The suggestions outlined above offer some solutions to help narrow the investment gap outlined by the Digital Connectivity Forum. This will be crucial if the UK wants to move quickly to realise the benefits of full 5G connectivity. They do however require the Government to be bold and to ensure that the framework surrounding mobile networks and infrastructure constantly evolve to stay ahead of the technological curve., while incentivising crucial investment in the UK’s mobile networks. The Wireless Infrastructure Strategy and Ofcom’s own deliberations around net neutrality offer a welcome opportunity to do just that.

Read our Enabling Growth Through 5G - Getting the Framework Right blog here for further insight.

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