UK to reform planning, release spectrum, bolster funding for industrial 5G and public services
The UK government is seeking to reform planning laws and release new spectrum to accelerate 5G deployments, as it also increases public funding for 5G testbeds to stimulate the digital transformation of industrial sectors and public services.
Jeremy Wight, secretary of state for the department of digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS), told 5G World in London the UK government wants to be among the leading nations for rollout of new 5G networks, and a pioneer in the development of new digital services on top, including for industry, governance, and public services.
Wright said: “As a government we see 5G as a great opportunity. And we want to be among the first wave of countries taking advantage of it. Previous generations of mobile technology established the connected world as we know it today and 5G represents the next generation, delivering greater capacity, faster speeds, and more reliable networks.
“It will lay the foundation for the smart cities and the industries of the future, and streamline the way we interact with public services. It can bring classrooms into our living rooms and revolutionise the way we interact with our doctors. And it’s vital that government, Ofcom, and industry work together to unlock this potential.”
The elephant in the room, of course, was cyber-security, and in particular the role of Chinese vendor Huawei in the rollout of the country’s 5G networks. Wright made clear high security of 5G networks was top of the agenda, and referenced DCMS’s review of the “5G supply chain”, which is considering Huawei, alongside every other kit vendor.
“We must never forget the absolute importance of maintaining the security and resilience of those networks. We can only achieve our ambitions in these areas if our critical infrastructure remains safe and secure.
He said: “We need to ensure security as well as innovation. Because a country is only as strong as its connections. And the countries that look to build connectivity, both physical and social, are the countries that will be happier and economically healthier.
“5G is an important part of that effort. If we get this right it could be a force for prosperity and opportunity all across the UK and all across the world too. And to do this we will need to work side by side with operators, local authorities, and civil society. The stakes are high and the challenge is great but we can and we must get it right.”
Asked about a decision on Huawei’s continued involvement in UK mobile networks – in a question-and-answer session that did not mention the Chinese vendor, a show sponsor, by name – Wright acknowledged the complications of US policy on telecoms equipment, but side-stepped, saying the review was of every vendor, and that Brexit had taken the political focus.
“The review we’ve conducted is not specific to one company, or even to one country. It’s very important that we conduct a broader-range review that will identify the need to have a more secure telecom supply chain, and what we have to do to achieve that.
“But of course, in relation to the supplier I’m sure you all have in mind, there are some complications – some things that have arisen recently, decisions made in the US that make this an even more difficult judgment than it was before.”
He added: “I can’t give you assurance you will hear instantly the answer to our deliberations but I think it’s important we consider all the factors at play… You will appreciate there are one or two other things going on at the moment that may slow the process down, as well as the need to consider all of the factors.”
As part of his keynote at 5G World, Wright said the UK government will shortly consult with the sector on proposals to reform the planning regime in England to simplify site access to public and private venues for 5G infrastructure. “I know this is a priority for the sector,” he said.
“It’s crucial that our planning framework continues to support the development of new mobile infrastructure… These proposals will simplify planning processes for installing new equipment, helping us to support the rollout of 5G and further improve coverage in rural areas.”
He summarised, as well, the government’s release schedule for new spectrum, and drive to bring new capacity in low, mid and high bands for mobile networks. Ofcom’s auction of the 700 MHz and 3.8 GHz spectrum bands is scheduled for next year. The Ministry of Defence has also released 168MHz in the 8 GHz band.
“We’ve now exceeded our 2020 manifesto target for spectrum release. And this valuable spectrum will soon be available for commercial use,” said Wright, urging the telecoms sector at the same time to seek new spectrum and site sharing models.
“We’re continuing to work with Ofcom and industry to explore flexible spectrum sharing models, which will support innovation and allow new players to enter the market to develop and deploy 5G services.”
There was no mention of Ofcom’s consultation on how to make spectrum available for specialist localised usage by industrial companies, as per the models being pursued in Germany and Sweden, notably. But he confirmed a new £40 million fund for the UK manufacturing and logistics sector to develop 5G systems and applications.
“There’s a potential multi-billion pound opportunity in the UK from introducing 5G technology to UK industrial processes, and to capitalise on this the logistics and manufacturing sectors have been chosen to benefit from the latest round of investment,” said Wright.
A competition will launch shortly to choose the “best partners” to work with, he said. “This project will contribute to the UK’s modern industrial strategy by using the latest technology to increase productivity and output.”
The telecoms sector contributes around £32 billion pounds a year to the UK economy, he noted. The UK government has set a target of full-fibre access to 15 million premises by 2025, with coverage across all parts of the country by 2033, and “majority” (95 per cent) 5G population coverage by 2027.
Wright warned the government will take matters into its own hands if the market fails to deliver on the 95 per cent target by itself. “We will pursue alternative solutions,” he said.
Ninety per cent of the UK is covered by “a good 4G signal” from at least one operator, he said, up from 80 per cent last year. Two thirds of the UK has geographic coverage from all four operators. “We’ve made great progress. Mobile coverage is improving all the time,” said Wright.
Meanwhile, seven per cent of the UK (one million premises) has access to full-fibre broadband – growth described as “one of the fastest rollout rates in Europe”.
He said: “Getting 5G deployment right is critical in a future where connectivity will be integral to almost all parts of the economy. And beyond these economic benefits connectivity is a force that can unleash untold benefits for our society.”
Wright also presented the government’s funding to seed new models with 5G which make the business case for its deployment in all regions and for all sectors. The UK is running a £200 million programme of six 5G testbeds around the country, which consider the manufacturing and logistics sectors, notably, as well as the provision public services like healthcare.
Further government funding is being made available for two large-scale testbeds, one urban and one rural, as part of its new Connected Communities Project. The urban leg of this, in the West Midlands, received £50 million last year, and is to extend to large-scale 5G pilots in Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton.
These pilots, which will experiment with 5G based hospital consultations and connected vehicles, will run into 2022. “This plainly shows that beyond its technical capabilities, 5G has the potential to transform the way we engage with public services and help create smart cities with an improved quality of life,” said Wright.
Rural 5G projects – notably 5G RuralFirst and the Rural Connected Communities Project – are also progressing. “We expect to see some applications relating to agri-tech but also models to assist public services and enhance productivity for rural businesses.”