The government has been urged to take immediate action to ensure the UK will be a 5G leader by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), whose chair claims the country has worse LTE service than Romania, Panama and Peru.
Poor mobile coverage, particularly in rural areas, has been a continued source of grievance for many who feel the government and mobile operators are not doing enough to accelerate rollout and make improvements as mobile services become increasingly important to work and life.
The government has stated it believes 5G is the future and that it will assist its development so the UK does not fall behind like it did with 3G and 4G. But the NIC says Whitehall should appoint a dedicated champion to ensure our existing infrastructure is up to the task.
Read More: What is 5G and how is it different?
“Britain is 54th in the world for 4G coverage, and the typical user can only access 4G barely half the time,” said Lord Adonis, Our 4G network is worse than Romania and Albania, Panama and Peru. Our roads and railways can feel like digital deserts and even our city centres are plagued by not spots where connectivity is impossible.
“That isn’t just frustrating, it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce.”
Among the NIC’s recommendations is the creation of a dedicated cabinet minister position to ensure basic voice, text and data services are available across the UK as part of a mobile universal service obligation (USO).
The NIC said government should also ensure all national infrastructure projects include provisions for digital, individual departments should take more responsibility and local government should work with operators to improve planning arrangements.
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All four major operators are legally obliged to provide a basic 2G service to 90 percent of the UK’s landmass, but this does not include data. EE has however committed to extending 4G coverage to 95 percent by the end of the decade.
The government attempted to intervene with the £150 million Mobile Infrastructure Project to build shared sites in rural areas but this, as its own minister admitted, a failure.
However the NIC wants more rapid action ahead of 5G, which is expected to become commercially available in 2020. This includes trackside network deployment on major rail routes and better coverage on motorways.
The rollout of 3G was affected by the enormous sums paid by mobile operators for their licences, which meant they could not invest in rollout. The 4G spectrum auction was perpetually delayed by legal disputes and it was only in 2012 that LTE services went live.
An upcoming spectrum auction will see 2.3GHz airwaves up for grabs, which should boost urban capacity, and 3.4GHz bandwidth which is earmarked for early 5G. BT-EE is banned from bidding for the former because it is deemed to have too much spectrum, but Three wants its rival to be barred from the latter, claiming the imbalance is harming the UK market.
“5G offers us a chance to start again and get ahead,” added Adonis. “If government acts now we can ensure our major transport networks and urban centres are 5G ready in time to give British industry every chance to lead the world in exploiting its applications.
“But none of this will matter unless we bring our mobile network up to speed. The existing system does not provide the level of coverage we will need in our connected future. We need a new universal service obligation which ensures that the mobile essentials – like text, talk and data – are available to us wherever we need them.”
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