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Britain could be stuck with an outdated telecoms industry without a plan for 5G

City AM logo City AM 7/1/2022 Ahmed Essam

The enormous benefits of full 5G are clear. Developing high capacity, standalone infrastructure promises to be a gamechanger for our transport network, for industrial settings such as smart factories, and for public services such as hospitals. What is less clear at present is whether the UK will get to feel the full benefits of the next generation of mobile technology in the near future.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what the 5G revolution could mean for the UK in the years to come. With an investment friendly environment, the prize for the whole of the country is undoubtedly huge. But the less uplifting reality is that there are barriers to achieving that prize. The current regulatory and policy environment is simply not going to work for many of our smaller cities and towns. And for the UK as a whole.

Decision-makers in Westminster and Whitehall cannot afford to brush aside the considerable cost of failing to make the UK attractive as a place for investment in future 5G technology. The difference between an attractive and an unattractive investment environment is worth as much as £7bn per year to the UK economy by 2030, according to Vodafone research.

Most of the losses resulting from an unattractive investment environment are from outside of London and other major cities. The biggest cities, which have the biggest populations and are most commercially attractive to investors, previously saw the fastest 4G rollout and are now well-positioned to attract investment in 5G. Yet for many smaller cities and medium-sized towns in every region and nation of the UK, except London, it is a very different story.

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There are at least 58 local authority areas which would see a high or very high benefit from a good investment environment for 5G. Smaller cities and towns up and down the country would be the big winners from getting 5G investment right. Conversely, the same places would fall further behind if investment continues to be limited to major cities, inflicting significant and lasting damage on the Government’s levelling up agenda.

It’s not too late to rectify these holes in the UK’s 5G strategy. For a start, the government should publish an updated strategy which sets out specific ambitions and tactics for the rollout of full 5G networks. And this needs to be underpinned by policy and regulatory reform that would enable these ambitions to be met.

This should mirror the approach that was taken to the roll-out of full fibre broadband, with financial and legislative support to plug the gaps in semi-urban and rural areas.

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Government should also use its procuring power to create market demand in 5G-related services, while the UK’s communications regulator has a key role to play in ensuring that the UK leaves all doors open in the quest to become a more attractive setting for investment in future 5G technology.

As the world wakes up to the full extent of the opportunities offered by full 5G, the UK cannot afford to sleepwalk into a scenario in which we miss out on the economic benefits. Countries like South Korea are emerging as global leaders in 5G roll-out, with high levels of take-up by citizens and businesses.

In the years ahead, the UK could also make 5G work for all of our citizens and businesses. But to get there, we need a course correction.

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