What's holding up the 5G utopia in Britain? Quite a lot, actually

Views from the morning after the night before


Special Report 5G is like an all-night drunken brainstorm in which the world's brainiest telecoms boffins went wild, and really let rip. The morning after is a real headache.

During the night every conceivable business model, every possible use case and every far-out new bit of radio technology is added to an ever-growing list, physics be damned. 5G would be everything. It would be faster, but with lower latency! It would save money, while offering more dense coverage... all the while improving radio performance for things both near and far away. It would achieve all these miracles. 5G became 6G and eleventy-G all rolled into one.

But one day someone would have to build and deploy it. And that part is proving a bit of a challenge.

Some cherished assumptions might have to be discarded, I learned last week, as the industry gathered to chew over the tricky part of implementing it all in the UK. The Westminster Forum assembled ministers, regulator Ofcom and the industry to figure out how.

In China, where property rights are largely theoretical and voting is ornamental, the government can issue sweeping edicts and simply get the thing built. That's also true for emerging states with little historical baggage or regulatory debt – modern networks can spring up overnight. The UK has lots of baggage and debt – and to get the thing working, some cherished practices might have to be thrown out the window.

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What did attendees talk about? The morning generated a 40,000-word transcript – half a big book. And access, costs and sharing dominated. Lots of sharing may be needed, posing headaches for regulators and nimble footwork from incumbents. Lurking in the background is the concern one attendee voiced: do the mobile networks actually have the dosh to get this done? Bringing a figurative bucket of cold water with him was Ofcom's CTO Mansoor Hanif, who told the audience:

You know, even if you offer huge state funding, you can't offer funding for opex [operating expenditure], and just the opex alone doesn't get a positive business case enough for the CFOs to invest. So that's where we are today.

If that hadn't sobered up anyone still high from the all-nighter, it should have done. He was talking about reaching remote areas where few consumers live – something we discussed here. Let's run through the issues vexing 5G rollout in the UK.

Everything's duct

5G is going to matter: much more backhaul capacity will be needed, and antennae will need to go in more places. Providing backhaul means building new fibre and getting better access to Openreach's somehow, which falls into the category of easing regulations around Physical Infrastructure Access (PIA), aka duct and pole access. Duct and pole access is not quite as sexy as beam-forming antennas or network-slicing, but the success of 5G may hinge on it more than any other single factor.

CityFibre's sales director George Wareing explained the impressive investment it's making in building an alternative to Openreach.

"We are largely betting our future on that digital economy on what the mobile operators are able to do, and on the copper networks of the past, unless we can create an alternative," he said.

"5G only works on fibre. In order to really reap the benefits of 5G, densification is going to be required, and therefore it's important to have fibre densely populated high capacity in a city, so that in the future we will be able to turn services on for small cells or macro cells in days rather than months, and allow the radio planning and the deployment of 5G networks to be really fluid and really enabled by that transmission."

What it's done in Milton Keynes, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, for example, is comprehensive: new fibre in "every school and every street". City Fibre should reach 20 per cent of the population by 2025 – and Vodafone will use it for network backhaul.

Even new fibre needs that duct and pole access, Wareing said, citing Portugal as an example. There, it had been easier to access physical infrastructure, leading to a more rapid rollout.

How about letting everyone have dibs on Openreach's ducts and poles, one attendee suggested to Melissa Giordano, deputy director of infrastructure and spectrum at The Ministry of Fun [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport].

"I don't think that kind of model has ever really been presented to us," she replied, welcoming anyone to do just that. The ministry was neutral on this – it just wanted it to happen.

Graham Payne, CEO of investment firm Digital Colony UK (a partnership between Digital Bridge and Colony Capital) and one of its investments, indoor coverage fixer OpenCell, said the government urgently needed to do much more to liberalise access.

"Currently PIA access is limited to consumer broadband only, and that needs to be lifted, and it needs to be made unlimited," he urged. And secondly, it can take nine months to fix a blocked duct "which you could have fixed whilst you're there. It's ridiculous, and that's what's happening at the moment in the consumer rollout: you hit a blockage, you're not allowed to clear it, the engineers on site could have done it and Openreach should have then refunded."

Currently, when a blockage is found the deployer needs to apply to Openreach, "who send a separate team out maybe a month later, who then commission another team to go back and fix the blocked duct that you could have done in two days".

"Macquarie, which is a big investor in this space, has just recruited to its team the lady who put in place the duct access model in France, which was highly successful, Gabrielle Gauthey," moderator Chris Watson, head of tech media and communications at the CMS Group, noted, "and she has joined them in the UK. So there's indication that investors do actually see this part as being really important."

Sharing's caring

Then there's the risk of the investment picture changing – perhaps with a new Corbyn-led Labour government. But that prospect didn't seem to have deterred Digital Colony or City Fibre's backers so far.

CMS's Watson, summing up, noted that regulators had to get smarter about new sharing models.

"I think there is a feeling that both in terms of fibre, neutral host or shared infrastructure at a fibre level, both also at the wireless end, the shared use of infrastructure is something which now has to happen for 5G really to succeed," he said.

"The old regulatory paradigm of separate competing infrastructures has served its time, has done it and produced some results, but it is not the right model for now and a shift is needed on that from both central administration and the regulator, and while the regulator moves forward slowly I think it will need to move forward on that. The thought that 5G was actually going to be so much about fibre, that surprised me slightly."

Ofcom's Hanif had noted in his slides the biggest opportunities of 5G: vertical operators entering the market in industries such as agriculture, mining and enterprise IT. He was familiar with the technologies that could help remote rural access. He listed the many initiatives such as consulting on the 3.6GHz/700MHz auction, and more sharing at 1.8GHz, 2.3GHz and 3.8-4.2GHz. Workshops and roundtables and more consultation. But an overarching strategy acknowledging that what worked for LTE might not work for 5G was absent, to the dismay of some.

Ex-minister Baronness Lucy Neville-Rolfe, questioning a panel from the floor, left a challenge hanging in the air for the Ministry of Fun.

"You're very supportive of Ofcom, and I think they are a very professional regulator, but clearly they have a great deal on their plate," she observed to Giordano. "I just wondered why you think they are a good regulator?" ®

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