5G mobile infrastructure could be worth £2.8bn a year to Britain – so long as government steps up

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, March 2018. Image: Getty.
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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.

 
 
 
 

In a world of autonomous vehicles, we’ll still need walking and cycling routes

A Surrey cycle path, 1936 style. Image: Getty.

The CEO of Sustrans on the limits of technology.

We are on the cusp of dramatic changes in the way we own, use and power our means of transportation. The mobility revolution is shifting from an “if” to a “where” and when”.

There are two different futures currently being imagined. First up, a heaven, of easy mobility as portrayed by autonomous vehicle (AV) manufacturers, with shared-use AV freeing up road space for public spaces and accidents reduced to near zero. Or alternatively, a hellish, dystopian pod-world, with single-occupancy pod-armadas leading to an irresistible demand for more roads, and with people cloistered away in walkways and tunnels; Bladerunner but with added trees.

Most likely, the reality will turn out to be somewhere in between, as cities and regions across the globe shape and accommodate innovation and experimentation.

But in the understandable rush for the benefits of automation we need to start with the end in mind. What type of places do we want to live in? How do we want to relate to each other? How do we want to be?

At Sustrans we want to see a society where the way we travel creates healthier places and happier lives for everyone – because without concerted effort we are going to end up with an unequal and inequitable distribution of the benefits and disbenefits from the mobility revolution. Fundamentally this is about space and power. The age-old question of who has access to space and how. And power tends to win.  

The wealthy will use AV’s and EV’s first – they already are – and the young and upwardly mobile will embrace micro mobility. But low-income, older and disabled residents could be left in the margins with old tech, no tech and no space.

We were founded in 1977, when off the back of the oil crises a group of engineers and radical thinkers pioneered the transformation of old railway lines into paths that everyone could walk and cycle on: old tech put to the service of even older tech. Back then the petrol-powered car was the future. Over 40 years on, the 16,575-mile National Cycle Network spans the length and breadth of the UK, crossing and connecting towns, cities and countryside, with over half of the population living within two miles of its routes.


Last year, more than 800 million trips were made on the Network. That’s almost half as many journeys made on the rail network, or 12 journeys for every person in the UK. These trips benefited the UK economy by £88m through reduced road congestion and contributed £2.5bn to local economies through leisure and tourism. Walking and cycling on the Network also prevented 630 early deaths and averted nearly 8,000 serious long-term health conditions.

These benefits would be much higher if the paths on the entire Network were separated from motor traffic; currently only one third of them are. Completing an entirely traffic-free walking and cycling network won’t be simple. So why do it?

In a world of micro-mobility, AVs and other disruptive technology, is the National Cycle Network still relevant?

Yes, absolutely. This is about more than just connecting places and enabling people to travel without a car. These paths connect people to one other. In times when almost a fifth of the UK population say they are always or often lonely, these paths are a vital asset. They provide free space for everyone to move around, to be, and spend time together. It’s the kind of space that keeps our country more human and humane.

No matter how clever the technological interface between autonomous vehicles and people, we will need dedicated space for the public to move under their own power, to walk and cycle, away from vehicles. As a civil society we will need to fight for this.

And for this reason, the creation of vehicle-free space – a network of walking and cycling paths for everyone is as important, and as radical, as it was 40-years ago.

Xavier Brice is CEO of the walking and cycling charity Sustrans. He spoke at the MOVE 2019 conference last week.