by Andrea Dona, Chief Network Officer, Vodafone UK
Although the UK got off to a fast start in the 5G era, we have lost our way a bit. However, the race is far from over and there is still plenty to be hopeful for.
While the “race to 5G” is not as simple as winners and losers, there will be those who win more than others. Developing the right environment for business to thrive not only increases the economic potential of those businesses that already exist, but it attracts international investment to create new jobs and new opportunities.
This increased economic prosperity will also have a hugely positive impact on our society and on us as citizens. Generally speaking, the better performing a countries economy, the better its public services function and the happier its people are.
In a world which is increasingly becoming dominated by technology, having the right digital infrastructure is critical to achieve this objective.
That means 5G, and to be more specific, 5G Standalone, deployed at scale across the length and breadth of the UK.
Sitting in the chasing peloton
Vodafone launched 5G Non-standalone services in 2019, becoming one of the first companies in the world to do so. As a result, the UK took a leadership position in the 5G race.
But much has changed in the last four years. The UK has incrementally moved forward, but not at the same pace as other nations. Looking at the statistics from Open Signal, the UK currently sits in 21st for median 5G download speeds compared to other European nations, and 20th for 5G coverage.
During the summer, we announced the launch of the UK’s first 5G Standalone network. While this is another promising step forward, we must be realistic. Until 5G Standalone, the technologically superior and fully upgraded 5G network, is installed at scale, we will not fully realise the full economic benefits of this new digital era.
Currently, the UK is an “also ran” in the 5G race. There will be benefits from the work we are doing, but let’s not settle for mediocrity.
What is the 5G opportunity?
The 5G opportunity is relatively simple when you condense it down to the simplest message – improving what we have today.
We have all experienced the benefits of digital technologies, from online banking through to simply being connected to our loved ones. And even during the toughest of times, the COVID-19 pandemic, technology enabled business and society to function in ways it would have never been able to in previous generations.
5G will build on that foundation and go far beyond it.
For starters, better digital infrastructure means greater efficiencies. Through real-time access to data and embedding AI, we can improve on what we have today. That could mean less energy intensive factory operations, or an NHS that monitors patients remotely in real-time so we can treat symptoms not diseases.
And then we have the ideas that are impossible today. 5G will bring to life ideas that would normally be at home in Sci-Fi movies. Driverless vehicles, robots to deliver packages, hologram video calls or learning through augmented reality.
5G Standalone could be worth £150 billion to the UK by 2030. This is new revenue growth for existing businesses that embrace the new digital era and the creation of new companies and jobs.
Realising the full potential of 5G
At Vodafone, we believe there are still many miles left in the race and significant opportunity to drive both economic and societal benefit. We just have to create the right environment.
Firstly, the proposed merger between Vodafone UK and Three UK would create a more competitive marketplace. Both Vodafone UK and Three UK are subscale operators, meaning we do not have enough customers to drive return-on-investment for the money we are spending on network deployment. This is unsustainable.
By merging Vodafone UK and Three UK together into a single entity, you create an organisation that can compete with BT/EE and VMO2. Both of these companies have greater scale, and as it stands, we believe the UK is effectively a two-player marketplace. We do not believe this is the best way to deliver value for consumers, businesses or the UK as a whole.
Secondly, we have to create the right policy environment for digital to succeed. The UK Government reformed the broadband market and now fibre installation is growing across the UK. The same should be done for the mobile market.
With reforms to spectrum policy, introducing public sector 5G procurement incentives, addressing the challenging with planning permission for new infrastructure and introducing an investment-first approach to regulation, we can get the UK back on track.
Building momentum in the final furlongs
The UK Government and Ofcom have already begun shifting the dial in the right direction with the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy and the Net Neutrality Consultation, but we need to move faster, and we need to create the right environment to succeed. This means creating three, scaled telecoms players that can effectively compete against each other.
5G is a race for economic opportunity and societal benefit across the UK. We’ve fallen off the pace, but we can quickly gather momentum with the right strategic approach.
Andrea (pictured, centre) spoke about this topic at length on the opening keynote panel of Connected Britain 2023, which took place ealier this week. Use the hashtag #ConnectedBritain to catch up with all the action online!