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What is 5G?

5G is the next generation of wireless communications technology. Compared to 4G, it is capable of providing faster speeds with much higher capacity and very fast response times. This will allow many more users and devices to access fast internet connections and large amounts of data at the same time.

5G has the potential to enable various ‘smart’ applications, for example in e-healthcare, smart cities, connected vehicles, and automated manufacturing. However, the technologies and business models that would support them are still developing. Most peoples’ experience with 5G to date is faster mobile broadband.

When and where will 5G be rolled out?

5G is primarily being rolled-out by private companies called mobile network operators. These are EE, O2, Vodafone and Three. The first commercial networks went live in major UK cities in 2019. Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, estimated that in September 2023, 85 to 93% of UK premises could get 5G coverage outdoors from at least one operator.

5G networks are initially being built on top of legacy 4G equipment. This is called ‘non-standalone’ 5G. While it can deliver enhanced mobile broadband, the more advanced uses envisioned for 5G will require ‘standalone’ networks. Deployment of standalone 5G, which utilises dedicated 5G equipment in all parts of the network, is at an early stage.

Government targets, policy, and funding for 5G

The government’s target is for “all populated areas” in the UK, including rural communities, to have standalone 5G coverage by 2030.

The government’s broad strategy for the 5G roll-out was set out in the 2018 Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review. The Review opted for a market-led approach to deploying next generation digital infrastructure (5G and gigabit broadband). Since then, policy focus has been on:

  • Making it cheaper and easier to build 5G infrastructure, for example by reforming planning and land access rules.
  • Supporting competition and investment.
  • Trials to demonstrate how 5G can be used in different sectors.
  • Releasing additional spectrum, which enables mobile operators to offer more and better services.

Funding for 5G has focused on projects to test advanced 5G use cases. The government has not provided direct funding to support the deployment of 5G infrastructure.

5G policy challenges

5G deployment will require significant investment from mobile operators and other stakeholders. However, there is uncertainty around 5G use cases and adoption rates. The government calls this the ‘chicken and egg problem’: mobile operators need to know there is demand for 5G services in order to invest, but without real-world evidence, potential users are still uncertain about its costs and benefits.

Other challenges relating to 5G include:

  • Practical deployment barriers such as gaining planning permission and permission to access private land.
  • Public opposition due to concerns about the health impact of 5G.
  • Security concerns regarding 5G networks as part of the UK’s critical national infrastructure.
  • Mobile operators’ access to sufficient spectrum to offer new 5G services.

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