Is the UK falling behind on 5G?

Is the UK falling behind on 5G

The United Kingdom is at risk of falling behind in the global race to deploy high-speed fifth-generation (5G) mobile networks, which are vital for the government's ambition to transform Britain into a tech hub akin to Silicon Valley, according to industry insiders and analysts.

Although the UK was among the pioneers in commercial 5G implementation back in 2019, it is now lagging due to limited investment from mobile network operators and disruptions caused by the government’s ban on equipment from Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant.

Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, reported in May that 5G coverage from at least one operator is accessible in 82% of places where people live and work in the UK. However, this figure drops to 22% for areas covered by all network providers.

In terms of 5G availability, which measures the percentage of time a mobile phone connects to dedicated 5G networks instead of other wireless technologies, the UK ranks a mere 10.1%. This places it 39th out of 56 advanced and developing markets, according to OpenSignal, a research firm's report published in June.

The UK’s 5G download speed also lags behind, ranking 21st out of 25 developed markets, trailing countries like France, Germany, and the Netherlands, according to a February report by Ookla, a mobile network analysis company. This is surprising given that the UK boasts the highest sales of 5G-capable smartphones in Europe.

Analysts express concern over the unfulfilled potential of 5G, with Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight stating that despite significant investments by telecom companies and network expansion efforts, the UK appears to have lost its standing as a 5G leader.

Andrea Dona, Vodafone UK’s Chief Network Officer, concurs, remarking that while the UK was an early adopter of 5G, it is now trailing behind, similar to past challenges with slow wireless technology rollouts.

This slow progress in expanding 5G networks in the UK persists despite clear economic benefits and the government’s commitment to high-speed mobile networks. Studies suggest that 5G could contribute up to £173 billion to the UK economy over the next decade through enhanced productivity, connected cities, and innovations like driverless vehicles.

5G technology is pivotal for driverless cars, enabling quick responses to unexpected pedestrian actions. It also aids cities in managing energy resources efficiently and promoting sustainability.

The government previously announced that it had met its 2027 target for providing basic 5G coverage but continues to rely on 4G networks for the majority of the population. Ministers now aim to achieve 5G coverage for all inhabited areas by 2030.

However, the decision to remove Huawei from the 5G network in 2020 due to national security concerns is cited as a major factor in the slow rollout. Industry experts argue that this move put significant brakes on operators’ deployment efforts.

Furthermore, there appears to be limited demand for 5G among the public. A survey by Uswitch revealed that one in six mobile users felt 5G had been overhyped, with less than half reporting noticeable speed or reliability improvements after upgrading their devices.

The benefits of 5G also vary across the UK, with London seeing marginal speed improvements compared to other cities when switching from 4G to 5G.

Mobile operators argue that the investment required for 5G doesn’t currently align with the financial numbers. They estimate that the £9 billion earmarked for 5G rollout by 2030 falls significantly short of the £34 billion needed for services reliant on 5G, such as autonomous vehicles.

The proposed merger of Vodafone and Three’s UK mobile operations has raised concerns about slower investment in 5G if competition authorities block the deal. The merger would reduce the number of UK network operators from four to three, potentially limiting choice for consumers and raising prices, according to consumer group Which.

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