UK sets out detailed 5G strategy, but with paltry funding

After making its latest vague statements about 5G in last week’s Budget announcement, the UK government has provided more details about how it intends to invest the £216m it has earmarked for fiber and next generation wireless.

There was widespread scorn about the sums proposed, especially as the £200m allocated to boost “full fiber roll-out” seemed to be the same £200m which were included in the last government financial statement. Of course, there have been previous investments too, such as setting up the 5G Innovation Center at the University of Surrey south of London, and £1.1bn for digital infrastructure was also mentioned in the document, published on the heels of the Budget, which sets out ‘A 5G Strategy for the UK’.

“Such is the opportunity presented by 5G that we are acting now to set out a bespoke 5G strategy,” said Ministers Karen Bradley and Lucy Neville-Rolfe in the document’s introduction. This document will serve as the blueprint for how we support the development and deployment of this technology, alongside £1.1bn of new investment designed to explore and incentivise the next generation of digital infrastructure in the UK.”

The document looks in detail at the economic case for 5G, at business models, regulatory issues, governance, spectrum and technology. The generic wish to be a 5G leader is given additional urgency in the UK because of looming Brexit, so there is a particular need to encourage 5G manufacturers to set up or expand their bases in the UK, and for the country to have competitive infrastructure, services and R&D facilities to attract partners and inward investors even without the weight of the European Union behind it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced a new National 5G Innovation Network to trial and demonstrate 5G applications, as part of the Budget, with an investment of up to £16m in phase one. He also pledged to invest £200m in local projects to test ways to accelerate and expand fiber deployment everywhere; and to improve mobile coverage on railways and roads, in response to a recent report from the UK National Infrastructure Commission, which blasted the inadequacy of this.

The National 5G Innovation Network will begin operations later this year and phase one will last until 2018, followed by support for a number of testbeds through to 2019. A new ‘Centre of 5G Expertise’ will also be created to coordinate different 5G work across the UK and keep it tied into overall objectives.

By the end of 2017, the Government says it will announce any further changes that may be needed to planning and regulatory systems, to support 5G infrastructure deployment, particularly in areas like dense small cells. And it will embark on a review of possible changes to net neutrality rules, to support 5G services like network slicing, and to address barriers to infrastructure sharing. It also wants to explore more options for spectrum sharing, initially focusing on the 3.8-4.2 GHz band, and on freeing up more public sector airwaves for 5G, on a refarmed or shared basis.

Professor Will Stewart, vice president of the engineers’ professional body, the Institution of Engineering and Technology, told TelecomTV: “The Budget investment in a 5G technology hub is welcome – as is the Government’s announcement today of a 5G strategy outlining an integrated approach to combining fibre and wireless networks to deliver 5G. But it’s important to stress that the 5G investment announced today will not come anywhere close to bridging the investment gap needed to deliver 5G across the UK – so the Government Strategy’s recognition that regulatory modernization is needed to make the final bill of delivering 5G more affordable, for example by enabling operators to share networks, is pivotal.”

The IET recently published a guide called ‘5G Networks for Policy Makers’ which identifies policy levers that need to be pulled for the UK to roll out 5G networks by 2020, and to make these transformational for the UK economy by 2025.