It’s rather unsurprising given this week’s tumultuous events that Brexit continues to dominate time, energy and focus in Westminster.
But the fact is the UK faces some great domestic challenges beyond this, which will arguably have just as much impact on our economic prosperity in the next 10 to 20 years. Not least of these is the installation of 5G mobile infrastructure, which is not guaranteed for the UK and will not happen without concerted action and focus.
Government quite rightly wants the UK to be a leader in 5G. After all, the next generation of mobile connectivity has the power to be as transformative as electricity for our daily lives and for our economy. O2’s recent analysis, ‘The value of 5G for cities and communities’, shows it could save local authorities all over the UK up to £2.8bn a year through efficiencies such as smart street-lighting and more efficient rubbish collections, and cut household bills by up to £450 a year – as well as assisting public services like the NHS move to digital and therefore free up more time to help patients.
This is tremendously exciting. But these benefits for cities aren’t guaranteed and we risk drift without concerted, collaborative action.
At O2 we’re already taking steps to secure that 5G future for the UK. We are launching a 5G test bed at the O2 in North Greenwich later this year and are planning to install similar test beds across Wales, Scotland and in Northern Ireland. We’re also working to roll out the small cell technology that will lay the foundations for our customers to enjoy 5G in places up and down the UK. We’ve already rolled out 1,400 small cells in London in partnership with Cisco, with plans to deploy 300 more in collaboration with Arqiva this year.
But we are not there yet. Building the next generation of transformative mobile infrastructure requires major investment and infrastructure installation in UK cities – and mobile operators cannot do it alone. This investment must be supported and enabled by bold and progressive decision-making in national and local government.
That is why O2 has worked with independent think tank Centre for Cities to draw up a blueprint on how together we can ensure 5G and other upcoming digital developments deliver for consumers and businesses in cities across the country, as well as for UK Plc. It also shows how cities can make better use of existing digital connections, drawing on examples of what is currently working best in places across the UK.
Amongst other things, the report, ‘Delivering Change’, calls for reforms to be made to the Electronic Communications Code to ensure it does not just work on paper. The report also recommends that the National Planning Policy Framework should include a requirement for the provision of high quality digital infrastructure – mobile and fixed – to be pre-installed in all new developments, like other utilities are.
But government should to be even more radical in its approach to tackling the barriers preventing 5G roll-out. Though it is rising, fibre coverage in the UK – which is critical to the deployment of 5G – still falls behind many of the developed nations, particularly for residential. We need that market to be developed and made more competitive to encourage the fast deployment of fast fibre in the UK.
Government should also ensure operators have easier and better access to existing infrastructure, such as BT ducts and poles and full fibre networks for mobile backhaul.
More also needs to be done to expand access to public sites at more affordable prices, so operators can install new mobile infrastructure. I would like to see, for example, the government setting up a challenge fund so people and organisations can apply to enjoy reductions in rent, in return for opening up their homes and buildings in order to improve digital connectivity in their local area. After all, landlords literally ‘hold the key’ to unlocking access to ultrafast connectivity for the UK.
Our vision is that all parties – government, regulators, industry, local authorities, landlords and developers – work together to secure an environment in which it takes just weeks and is commercially sensible to install a 5G small cell no bigger than a laptop into our built environment. Only then can we ensure that the investment, adoption and prioritisation of 5G matches the opportunity it presents – with no exception and for the benefit of all.
Britain was a pioneer of mobile technology. But without the right focus on 5G we risk squandering the benefits of 5G and losing the digital leadership we have worked so hard to establish.
Derek McManus is chief operating officer of O2.
You can learn more about this topic in the ‘Delivering Change’ report, published in association with the Centre for Cities.