Why 5G isn’t ready to reach its potential

By Mikael Sandberg
5G may be the technology buzzword of the year, but its benefits are still light-years away, says Mikael Sandberg, Chairman, VX Fiber

Just last week, Digital secretary Nadine Dorries announced the UK will be switching off its 2G and 3G networks by 2033, and that a further £50m has been allocated to put the “UK at the forefront of mobile connectivity”. The aim is to focus on the acceleration of 5G and pave the way for future 6G services that deliver a range of benefits for individuals, businesses and society. 

The recent announcement is part of a bigger ambition to have the majority of the UK population covered by a 5G signal by 2027. And the UK is not alone in this drive for mobile; connections to 5G networks have been on the agenda for a number of years. As a result, 1.34 billion users are predicted to be connected by 2022, according to a CCS Insight report. 

And the public has been just as involved in the 5G hype. For example, recent data showed 5G to be the most popular discussion on Twitter in Q2 2021. While the rumour that Apple is set to launch a third-generation iPhone SE in early 2022 with 5G support proves not only that the technology is becoming easier to launch at scale, but also that consumer demand is high. J.P. Morgan analysts claim the phone “has the potential to attract more than a billion non-premium Android users”. 5G has seemingly hit the mainstream. 

And it’s no wonder that the world has been sucked into the 5G whirlwind. The pandemic has brought the need and importance of reliable and flexible networks into sharp focus. The switch to remote working and the rapid normalcy of meetings from our desks at home brought with it surges in internet traffic and demand for reliable, stable connections - internet use doubled in the UK in 2020 amid the height of the pandemic. For the most part, networks coped well, but questions are hanging over the near-horizon about how carriers will adapt and scale for both a growing remote workforce and the predicted rise of new technologies. 

5G is part of the answer, and its development and rollout will coincide with and drive innovations in IoT, autonomous vehicles, and AI. These emerging technologies also exist within significant tectonic shifts in society and culture, including increasing digitalisation, virtualisation and autonomy in services, and the beginnings of decentralised applications of blockchain technology. 

With a surge in internet traffic and technological innovations, we need low latency and high bandwidth connections. 5G does promise to lead us into a world of ultra-low latency, but behind the exciting buzzwords this type of internet speed will entail, the reality is far less simple.

In truth, 5G could never be the sole provider of internet services. The frequencies that 5G operate on are unable to penetrate objects as well as the frequencies of its predecessors (1G-4G), making the connection severely unstable. These higher frequencies require many more transmitters, closer to or inside the homes and offices that need internet access – otherwise known as small-cell sites. However, small-cell sites must be connected to the internet backbone by a wireline network. In other words, 5G is reliant on the high-capacity fixed lines that support it.

5G alone can only ever be a stop-gap, as the majority of valuable 5G applications will only become possible once full fibre becomes available. Unfortunately, the UK’s fixed line infrastructure is lacking. In September 2020, during the spike in internet usage, the UK dropped 13 places in the Worldwide Broadband Speed League and is now amongst the slowest in Europe. While Boris Johnson has set his sights on providing full fibre broadband, even meeting the Government’s watered-down 2025 target - a minimum of 85% - will require the rapid removal of barriers such as the planning framework, certainty on policy, vendor diversification, and digital championing at a local level. 

Open Access provides a solution. Open access typically means multiple Service Providers sharing the same physical network. In this model, municipalities and other fibre owners can build the physical infrastructure using existing assets such as cable or ducting laid down for security cameras, traffic management, and district heating – and importantly, retain ownership of this lucrative fibre asset. Contributing to that, and enabling private investors to leverage existing infrastructure, will lower costs and speed up deployment. 

ISPs then operate in a competitive market using the same physical network, giving incentives to innovate instead of simply locking out competitors with a de facto monopoly. Open access networks spur competition between Service Providers - lowering both costs for the subscribers and the barriers to new Service Providers entering the market - increasing choice and service. This open access-driven investment will be key in enabling further roll-out of fibre and, ultimately resolving the challenges of implementing 5G nationally. 

There is no doubt that 5G is revolutionary across a variety of networks and that it will enhance a broad range of industries - especially as the UK looks to return to economic growth following the fiscal strain of the pandemic. But regions expecting 5G coverage should beware; it will require full fibre in the area to use the 5G network to its maximum potential. Fibre dispersed among regions will allow for more formidable 5G goals to be achieved, including diversified networks and enhanced accessibility and coverage, all brought together by interconnected fibre systems. It bodes thinking about before adding the next Apple phone to your basket. 

 

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