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UK’s ambitious new 5G strategy hints at support for mergers, changes to “net neutrality” rules

Standalone 5G everywhere by 2030 - on whose dime?

The British government has set an ambitious target of “standalone” 5G for all populated areas in the UK by 2030 – saying it will help stimulate UK 5G investment with several policy measures, rather than fiscal support.

Standalone 5G means new core infrastructure designed for high-speed 5G services, rather than the currently common approach of attaching 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment to existing 4G infrastructure.

Delivering this target would add nearly £159 billion in productivity benefits to the economy by 2035, according to the new wireless strategy published by the Department of Science, Innovation & Technology this week.

It will also be immensely costly. The government is not gearing up to bankroll infrastructure rollout however…

UK 5G investment: HMG hints at “net neutrality” changes

The department said in the report that it recognises that “many businesses and local authorities do not yet clearly understand the benefits 5G offers… there is no clear articulation of the demand for higher quality services. In turn, this makes it more challenging for providers to make the business case for investment.”

“Our 2030 ambition requires significant commercial investment” it added. (Our italics.)

The report said the government will try to help stimulate this in a number of ways.

These look set to include a reform of existing “net neutrality” rules still on the statute books via European legislation, but which market watchdog Ofcom has been consulting on with a review finishing in January 2023.

See also: AWS’s Private 5G is GA, but it ain’t 5G

Net neutrality rules make sure that the traffic carried across broadband and mobile networks is treated equally and particular content or services are not prioritised or slowed down. Those rules may be about to change.

The government said that it would help stimulate 5G investment by “ensuring that net neutrality rules are fit for purpose and support operators’ ability to innovate and invest in infrastructure…” without sharing details.

(In the US, net neutrality rules were dismantled in 2017 and in most states, connectivity providers can controversially throttle certain services or prioritise others. Democrats have moved to reintroduce the rules however and classify broadband under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, “which would give the commission greater regulatory muscle to make providers respect the principle of common carriage.”)

See: As funding dries up for private 5G trials, is there a business case?

uk wireless strategy uk 5g investment
Image illustrates a private 5G deployment with different field devices, antennas (blue dots) and the 5G core in a rack mounted blue cabinet. Credit: GSMA

To support UK 5G investment, the new wireless strategy also saw HMG vow to:

  • Refarm spectrum “where it is not being used efficiently”
  • Bring “the full purchasing power of government to support public sector adoption, and work… with the Crown Commercial Service to drive demand for 5G use cases”
  • Support “secure new entrant providers, and [the] scaling up [of] existing provision, such as through neutral host operators and private network providers”
  • Make all new hospitals “5G or equivalent wireless enabled”
  • Provide “up to £40 milion for regions and local authorities across the UK to establish themselves as ‘5G Innovation Regions’ to promote innovation and growth through investment in, and scaled adoption of, 5G and other advanced wireless technologies by business and public services”

Minister Julia Lopez said: “This is not simply a matter of improving download speeds as people browse the internet on their phones or dial into work calls. It is far more transformative than that. The power of 5G and future telecoms advances will unlock new solutions in everything from industry to healthcare.”

With the ROI of private 5G network tests still somewhat unclear and industry stuck in something of a chicken-or-egg standoff (without demand, no infrastructure; without infrastructure, no demand and ability to demonstrate compelling use cases) it was not immediately clear whether the strategy would be enough to incentivise telcos to dip into their pockets for the sustained UK 5G investment the 2030 target would require.

The Stack would welcome your views on the strategy and likelihood of telcos meeting the target.

See also: Why this $6.2b telco platform acquisition by Ericsson matters