5G roll-out: A race against time

Do mobile network operators need more support from the government to hit 2027 targets?

The roll-out of 5G in the UK has initiated inordinate levels of attention, both from the press and the general public, resulting in much controversy and even a few conspiracy theories. Much of this has been embroiled in the government’s objective to achieve majority 5G coverage by 2027; a target for which £5bn in funding was initially earmarked, but which has since been stripped back by 75%.

It stands to reason therefore, that the likelihood of meeting this target has come under increasing scrutiny, with a parliamentary inquiry reporting that the telecoms sector has no belief in the aptitude of the government to achieve its digital infrastructure goals.

But failure to implement 5G technology swiftly could prove costly, and this is a fact not lost on the current administration. With nationwide roll-out progressing, it’s believed the mobile industry will contribute £198bn per annum to the economy by 2030, equating to almost 6% of UK GDP.

As such, Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and his team have devised the 5G Supply Chain Diversification Strategy. With funding to the tune of £250m, the initiative aims to complement legislation introduced to eradicate high risk 5G vendors by facilitating growth and opportunities for new and existing suppliers. It’s built around three core strands…

Supporting incumbent suppliers

With the application of Huawei apparatus in 5G networks now prohibited and mandated to be eradicated from infrastructure by 2027, only Ericsson and Nokia remain as suppliers of mobile access network equipment in the UK. As such, it’s likely they will experience intense pressure to deliver against the relatively tight timescales and targets set by government.

To ease this, DCMS have pledged to offer increased flexibility for suppliers to distribute their operational capabilities across a global supply chain, encouraging them to seek diversity in their range of component providers. It’s hoped this will nurture greater resilience should the market become more turbulent or when demand surges.

It’s also crucial that these businesses sustain their leading-edge capabilities. In this regard, the DCMS has vowed to work collaboratively to ensure research and development is moulded in alignment with both the long-term vision of the government and emerging trends observed in the market. This should help ensure both suppliers remain integral to the application of the latest most desired telecoms innovation.

Attracting new suppliers into the UK market

Meanwhile, attention will also be paid to the generation of greater competition in this space, as well as the attraction of new suppliers to the market.

The DCMS is eager to understand more about the relevance of 2G, 3G and 4G services looking ahead; if and how these technologies will be utilised, and how provision can be optimised. Would it be feasible for those tasked with the rapid delivery of 5G networks to divert their attention away from these legacy technologies? Could other agencies take the reins? Is this an opportunity for new challengers to make their play? It’s been acknowledged that there are barriers to achieving diversification related to the efficient use and allocation of spectrum, and DCMS have vowed to collaborate with Ofcom to address these in the quest to liberate supply chain options.

And in a similar vein, the strategy has assured the market that it will encourage the integration of new suppliers into the networks of operators, by reviewing existing regulation around requirements for resilience and performance, that have proven inhibitory in the past. Furthermore, it’s suggested that the act of onboarding new suppliers could become incentivised in order to aid mobile network operators with the associated costs of doing so.

Accelerating open-interface solutions and deployment

Supporting and nurturing commercial organisations to drive 5G roll-out is important, but equally crucial is the research and development required to fully understand, optimise and use it to its full potential as part of a wider ecosystem of connectivity and telecoms technologies.

As such, the DCMS proposes further investigation into interoperable technologies, accelerating research in this field to encompass a substantial Open RAN (Radio Access Network) trial. Open RAN represents an alternative method of building telecoms networks, allowing for greater interoperability of radio equipment between vendors, and provide network operators with greater choice and flexibility. DCMS will facilitate solution-mapping between operators and suppliers, and provide them with the means to evaluate the security and technical performance of equipment, with the establishment of a National Telecoms Lab.

From a regulatory standpoint, the strategy sets out to provide the UK with a more influential voice in the setting of standards, aiming to ensure diversification and market growth are supported by the governance agreed. It will also assess the ways in which regulatory requirements can be addressed and implemented in such a way that promotes a supply chain that is both diverse and competitive.

Ensuring the UK is at the forefront of 5G

Setting out a strategy is one thing. But getting it off the ground is another, and a task of this magnitude is not one to be taken lightly. But in a little over a month, the DCMS revealed that nine projects would benefit from investment worth more than £28m in conjunction with the UK government’s 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme.

The projects were selected as a consequence of the 5G Create competition, and should help demonstrate the ways in which British industry can thrive using modern technology. Open RAN is set to feature in the majority of these experiments, which should come as no surprise based on the objectives of the strategy described previously.

Many of the ventures focus on the development of consumer experiences, such as those based at Stadium MK in Milton Keynes and the Eden Project in Cornwall. But others will demonstrate the power of 5G to various industries, such as those based in Felixstowe and Bristol, which is hoped will deliver more productive, efficient and dynamic operations in port logistics. It’s with these that the more critical benefits of 5G are likely to be realised.

Couple this with the government’s hasty review of the Electronic Communications Code, discussed here in Computer Weekly, and all signs suggest the present administration are doing as much as possible to streamline the roll-out of future telecoms technologies. In fact, the article’s author, Joe O’Halloran, sums up the status quo rather aptly: ‘Despite the brickbats thrown at the current UK government for its lack of responsiveness and proactivity in many of its programmes, the pace of its comms infrastructure buildout cannot be held to much reproach’.

There is no doubt in the presence of appetite for 5G. Will the UK hit the government-set targets? That remains to be seen. While financial resources have taken a hit, support does appear to be generous in terms of keeping 5G roll-out front and centre. One thing is for certain; the two-way flow of communication between the government and industry is essential for all to pull in the same direction. Through continued collaboration and shared expertise, the UK can at least accomplish its goal of becoming the world leader in 5G, even if this nation falls short of its targets.

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