Government must ensure the UK does not cede its 5G leadership

Mark Kleinman and Mischa Dohler of King’s College London have four recommendations to ensure the UK’s strong position in 5G is not thrown away

The history of computing and technology is littered with cases where British ingenuity and innovation led the field in its early stages, but where we failed to capitalise on our early successes. 

The work of Alan Turing, Tommy Flowers and others on programmable, electronic computers during the Second World War, or Donald Davies’s 1960s research on ‘packet switching’ (a term he coined) – the technology that is the bedrock of the internet – are just some examples. We must not let this happen with 5G, the technology which will mean vastly quicker and more reliable mobile networks.

The UK is establishing itself as a global leader in developing, trialling, and implementing 5G solutions. This lead can provide tremendous support for the government’s goals to raise productivity and growth, and to develop and implement its Industrial Strategy. But unless we take action to maintain and build on this leadership, our current advantage will be quickly eroded by a series of infrastructure and policy barriers.

In our new policy briefing, we set out four vital strategic actions for the government to take now. 

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First, government should recognise the value of public street furniture as a key strategic infrastructure asset. There are over five million street lamps in the UK, and thousands of other structures that are suitable for the siting of 5G network equipment. Street furniture, therefore, offers a unique opportunity to roll out such a network at scale, if a coordinated approach to leveraging these assets nationally is developed.  

Currently, 5G development and implementation are occurring in silos. These projects are led by a range of organisations – but with few wider partnerships, and a limited focus on scaling up pilot projects or identifying opportunities for larger-scale network deployments. Street furniture is a foundation that can tie them all together. 

Second, there should be a focus on ensuring efficient usage of all digital infrastructure. For instance, across the UK, a strong fibre network is already in existence. But it is owned by a complex range of organisations working in isolation from each other. Fibre sharing should be prioritised, and regulated if necessary, in order to deliver a functioning pan-UK network. The same goes for other digital infrastructure. The transformational potential of 5G can only be realised by considering the bigger picture – moving beyond simple asset ownership and immediate costs, and focusing on the value of the broader network and its social, economic, and wider multipliers.

Spectrum and skills
Third, government should pursue a more nuanced approach to spectrum policy. The lease and sub-lease of the operators’ spectrum to non-operators is important and requires clearer and more permissible regulation. This would allow a wide range of organisations to explore use-cases – building expertise, delivering innovation, and de-risking network investments for operators. 

There needs to be a legal and policy framework in place to allow enterprises such as manufacturing sites, shopping malls, cultural institutions, and wider private-sector organisations to build their own networks for their own clients – in conjunction with traditional operators. Such network innovation has been demonstrated by our own work on 5G at King’s College London. 

King’s has a range of spectrum test licences and, because of these, has been able to develop, test, and deploy the first attempts at 5G in the UK. This has attracted significant interest and attention from operators, who – with a few exceptions – are unable to commit considerable resource to exploring an unknown technology proposition.

There needs to be a national approach to building 5G skills. The skills to leverage its potential benefits are currently in short supply

Finally, there needs to be a national approach to building 5G skills. 5G represents an unprecedented shift in technology development, deployment, and usage. However, the skills to leverage its potential benefits are currently in short supply. In addition, 5G technology is likely to be commoditised ahead of skills. This issue has been recently highlighted by other technological developments – such as artificial intelligence, big data, and the internet of things – where significant effort has been expended to ensure that skills catch up with the demands of these sectors. Building a strong and sustainable foundation of suitable 5G skills is central to supporting, growing and driving innovation across the 5G ecosystem.

The UK has a unique opportunity. Through government leadership and investment in initiatives such as the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme, the initial foundations of 5G are being built across the UK. However, delivering 5G – and its transformational benefits – to all areas of the UK demands a holistic approach to the technology, from skills to infrastructure provision. 

This work must be done now. These are radical recommendations, but they are not made lightly. Each recommendation is directly linked to the experience of King’s in developing and implementing 5G in a real-world setting. We consider them to be crucial steps to take in order for the UK to maintain its leadership in 5G, and to deliver the benefits of 5G to citizens in all parts of the UK.

Sam Trendall

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