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Is the UK government’s 5G revolution being over-hyped?

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The government published a 70-page epic last week on its ambitions to make the UK a “global leader” in 5G. Philip Hammond proposed investments of up to £16m to launch a new national programme of 5G testbeds and trials, putting the UK “at the forefront of the 5G revolution”.

But to what extent is it this actually feasible and, more importantly, necessary?

The main benefit for businesses and consumers of this next wave of mobile technology is it will enable faster mobile connections. It will also prove vital for those innovating in the interconnected devices and Internet of Things (IoT) space.

However, it is not set to reach the market within the next decade. Despite being a long way from introduction and mass adoption, 5G has already generated significant hype, particularly at this year’s Mobile World Congress, where companies including Intel demonstrated 5G-reliant connected cars, devices and cities.

Analysts at Gartner estimate that by 2020 there will be 20 billion IoT-connected devices in use by businesses and consumers.

Adrian Baschnonga, global telecoms lead analyst at EY, said: “5G tech has a key role to play in unlocking new use cases in the Internet of Things and improving levels of broadband coverage. Interest in 5G is white-hot right now, but there’s still some way to go in terms of technology trials and standardisation.”

Innovation

The government has already been trialling this technology for some time, having ploughed £12m into a £70m 5G innovation centre at the University of Surrey in September 2015. It appears more testing is required though, as definitive standards for the technology are only due to be agreed in 2019.

Figures from research and consultancy firm Ovum forecast there will be 24 million 5G subscribers by 2021, though less than 10% of those connections are set to be in Europe. This, along with concerns about 5G’s overall viability, has meant this technology has been met with a great deal of skepticism from industry experts in the UK.

One common argument is that the UK already lags in terms of 4G, so is it really in a position to compete when it comes to the next level of connectivity? In December, a report on 5G from the National Infrastructure Committee found that the UK’s 4G network ranked only 54th in terms of coverage, behind countries such as Albania, Panama and Peru. It highlighted that there were too many “digital deserts” across the UK where there was no coverage, while mobile signal on trains and motorways was “frankly appalling”, which does not necessarily bode well for 5G.

Criticism

William Webb, a former Ofcom director and author of The 5G Myth, has been vocal in his criticism of 5G, stating in a LinkedIn post that “the current industry 5G vision is flawed”, and that existing connectivity “is often insufficient to deliver the ubiquitous 1Mbits/s or so needed for the services we consume”.

Nevertheless, Webb applauded the government’s 5G plans. “It has specific initiatives to improve coverage alongside railways and roads. It looks at ways to make cell planning cheaper, share infrastructure and share spectrum in order to help wider deployment of networks. It recognises that 4G will evolve for some time and that there is little reason to rush to a new technology,” he wrote.

Raj Samani, CTO EMEA of Intel Security, argued security should be top of mind in the development of 5G, which so far hasn’t been the case: “5G has been a hot topic of conversation for more than 18 months, yet security still isn’t being prioritised. This needs to change.”

“The faster and greater the level of data being transferred across networks, the greater the risks. With 5G, we’re looking at opening our networks up to significantly more speed and therefore more data, which will far exceed anything we’ve ever seen before. This will present a bigger and better opportunity for cyber criminals to cash in,” Samani added.

“Don’t get me wrong, the progression from 4G to 5G offers a lot of benefit to people globally, in terms of technological advancements that wouldn’t be possible without it. However, the entire industry – from the network through to device manufacturers – needs to be prepared,” he concluded.

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