Government action needed to deliver world leading 5G connectivity in the UK, says NIC

Out-Law News | 14 Dec 2016 | 5:07 pm | 4 min. read

The UK government has been urged to support the deployment of mobile telecommunication networks "fit for the future" in major road and rail infrastructure by 2025 under a series of proposals designed to help deliver world class connectivity in the UK.

The recommendations (98-page / 3.59MB PDF) made by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) are expected to inform the UK's '5G' strategy, which is expected to be outlined next year. Previous UK chancellor George Osborne earlier this year asked the NIC to carry out "an assessment of how the UK can become a world leader in 5G deployment, and how it can take early advantage of the potential benefits of 5G services".

In its report now published, the NIC said that mobile connectivity has become "a necessity". It set out seven recommendations on how the UK can deliver on its goal of becoming a world leader in the deployment of 5G mobile telecoms networks.

Technology projects expert Natalie Trainor of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind, said: "5G is expected to be one of the key enablers to delivering faster, more reliable and ubiquitous connectivity that UK businesses and consumers require, and we welcome the report and its recommendations. We agree that 5G will be part of a wider ecosystem of mobile connectivity and cannot be looked at in isolation."

Nick Ogden, infrastructure expert at Pinsent Masons, said: "Phillip Hammond highlighted in the recent Autumn Statement the UK’s low levels of productivity – investment in telecoms infrastructure is essential in reversing this. Seamless connectivity in urban centres and across major transport networks will help businesses improve day to day operations with a workforce that can be easily connected. For the UK’s levels of productivity to grow it is necessary the government takes action and listens to the NIC’s recommendations."

"The government’s national infrastructure pipeline reports projects totalling £15.5 billion in the line-up for the communications sector, representing 3% of the £502 billion list. This doesn’t seem a large amount given these recommendations, and the government will need to look at ways to support and enable the private sector to invest in the improvements needed for telecoms sector," he said.

In its report the NIC urged the UK government to place "ultimate government responsibility for digital infrastructure" with a single cabinet minister who has "with the authority to shape policy and delivery across government". The NIC said that "5G networks cannot be thought of in isolation but must be considered as part of a wider ecosystem of mobile connectivity".

It said that the UK government currently approaches digital infrastructure in a "fragmented" manner and that its interests in it are "entwined with the wider policy interests of numerous departments and agencies" which "do not have national mobile connectivity as a core objective".

"We support the recommendation for single ministerial responsibility to look at cross government policy," Trainor said. "We believe that this could and should go further by facilitating greater alignment and integration between digital and other infrastructure sectors, such as energy and transport, and between central and local government. Moving away from the current silo and uncoordinated way of doing things towards a joined up cross-sector approach to infrastructure investment, policy and delivery must be the ultimate goal."

The NIC also recommended that major road and rail infrastructure is upgraded with mobile telecoms networks "fit for the future" by 2025. Together those projects could cost almost £1 billion, although the NIC has suggested funding could be provided by the private sector. The UK government should set out its plans to deliver those objectives by the end of 2017, the NIC said.

A new "mobile universal service obligation" should be set in the UK too, the NIC said. The UK government has already committed to establishing a universal service obligation for broadband, which Ofcom has been working on. The Digital Economy Bill, currently being scrutinised in the House of Lords, is intended to support this universal service obligation. In addition, the Bill is intended to introduce a new Electronic Communications Code to modernise the powers available to install and maintain electronic communications infrastructure, such as ducts and mobile phone masts, on public and private land.

The NIC also said that UK rules on telecoms infrastructure sharing and spectrum sharing should be reviewed by the government and Ofcom before the end of 2017.

It said Ofcom should enable "niche entrants or sub-national players to access the higher frequency spectrum anticipated for 5G". Allocating the right to use spectrum on a nationwide basis to a few operators "could leave large areas of the UK fallow", the NIC warned.

Local authorities also have a role to play in boosting mobile connectivity, the NIC said. It said local authorities should work with business groups to set out "local mobile connectivity delivery plans" that help support the deployment of mobile telecoms networks and digital infrastructure and ensure "local government assets and infrastructure" are utilised to support such deployment.

The NIC said funding for broadband announced by UK chancellor Philip Hammond in his recent Autumn Statement could also support the piloting of "local models for facilitating the deployment of these networks". The pilot schemes could help "inform national roll-out", it said.

"Reviewing the rules on telecoms infrastructure sharing and spectrum sharing is likely to support an even greater ecosystem and encourage new players, solutions and innovation which has to be a good thing," Trainor said. "As well as Ofcom, government will need to consult and collaborate with industry and local authorities to develop a fully informed strategy on this."

The NIC said delivering 5G connectivity could be "transformative" for UK businesses.

"5G is expected to deliver a step change of ultrafast, low latency, reliable, mobile connectivity, able to support society’s ever larger data requirements as well as wide ranging new applications," the NIC said. "From connected and autonomous vehicles to an internet of things, 5G has the potential to be transformative across a number of sectors including health, transport and education, and will bring new innovations as unknowable today as the mobile apps and services we now take for granted were a decade ago."

"Securing the mobile networks necessary to put the UK at the forefront of this emerging technology will be critical to the UK’s growth and to drive our industrial base into the internet applications and services economy. The Commission’s central finding is that mobile connectivity has become a necessity. The market has driven great advances since the advent of the mobile phone. But government must now play an active role to ensure that basic services are available wherever we live, work and travel, whilst our roads, railways and city centres must be made 5G ready as quickly as possible," it said.