What else can we add to UK.gov's tech project bonfire? Oh yeah, 5G

Watchdog casts doubt on testbeds and trials scheme

The UK's £217m 5G testbed trials have already hit a major speed bump due to a lack of available equipment, according to an official report.

In the Infrastructure Project Authority's annual report (PDF), the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport's (DCMS) programme was rated as amber/red – meaning delivery is doubtful.

The project intends to establish a national programme of coordinated 5G testbeds and trials and is funded from the £740m pot for digital communications technologies announced in the 2016 Autumn Statement.

In March 2018, the government announced six winners of the first phase of the 5G Testbeds and Trials competition, led by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), universities and local authorities.

Each testbed received between £2m and £5m in government grants.

However, the Infrastructure Project Authority report cast doubt on the overall project's delivery "due to programme initiation delays caused by 5G equipment availability and complex programme setup".

One expert familiar with the trials, who asked not to be named, said equipment availability has been a problem because the main suppliers would typically rather supply their large customers rather than small, government-funded projects.

"Another is the complexity of deploying a 5G network with the result that non-mobile network operators struggle both to understand what is needed and to procure things like sites (and MNOs often aren't that interested in these projects once they've started commercial deployment, which they all have)."

There have also been constraints on spending government money including the need for matched funding from bodies that often struggle to raise it. "Finally, there's the difficulty of doing something that really moves the dial when there is much uncertainty."

The report said the programme has addressed feedback and recommendations from IPA experts "and mobilisation of future projects is under way".

A DCMS spokesman said: "Our 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme aims to support the development of new 5G applications and we remain confident it is well placed to deliver its objectives.

"The published rating is based on an evaluation that was conducted at an earlier stage of the programme."

Sam Barker, senior analyst at Juniper Research, said: "Indecision regarding Huawei's involvement in the rollout of 5G infrastructure has been holding back the development of 5G networks in the UK for some time, however recent announcements seem to confirm that stakeholders are happy to include Huawei in operator networks.

"Given the nature of trials and tests and the relative nascence of 5G, it could simply be a case of finding a vendor who is able to supply hardware that meets the requirements of a trial." ®

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