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UK govt wants standalone 5G by 2030 but won't shell out to help hit target

Instead tech department working on 'range of measures' to foster investment

The UK government's updated telecoms strategy wants standalone 5G coverage for all populated areas by 2030, blue-sky funding for 6G research, grants for satellite connections in remote areas, and faster rollout of high-speed broadband.

Announced by the newly formed Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which was summoned into existence in February, the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy promises money for a number of goals.

First among these is a reiteration of its commitment to extending 4G coverage to 95 percent of the population, plus a new goal of having standalone 5G coverage over all populated areas of the UK by 2030.

Standalone 5G refers to a mobile network where the core infrastructure has been designed with support for 5G services in mind, whereas current 5G offerings in the UK are effectively just a 5G Radio Access Network (RAN) – i.e. the radio equipment – bolted onto existing 4G infrastructure.

Many of the benefits that were promised for 5G networks, such as ultra-low latency and much greater network capacity, can only be realized with standalone 5G, so it appears that the UK government wants to push operators into delivering it.

"Our Wireless Infrastructure Strategy sets out our plan to ensure everyone, no matter where they live, can reap the benefits of improved connectivity. We are doing this by ensuring all populated areas in the UK will be served by what I call '5G-plus' technology by 2030," said Michelle Donelan, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology.

This is likely to be costly so DSIT said that the strategy sets out "a clear pro-investment framework" for mobile network operators, but doesn't look like it is offering funding for this goal.

The department hinted that it was open to further market consolidation, saying that there is no "magic number" of mobile operators, and it seems to be relying on competition to drive the necessary investment.

In response to our query, a DSIT spokesperson confirmed that it will not be subsidizing any necessary network upgrades, but will instead be introducing "a range of measures" to support commercial investment.

DSIT claims that the operators themselves suggested that market consolidation, or a reduction in the number of operators from 4 to 3, would allow them to raise the funds for further investment in 5G.

Media and telco analyst Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight said that achieving the standalone 5G target will be challenging for some operators.

"All UK mobile operators still rely on non-standalone 5G. This underlines the need for further and ongoing investment in networks at a time when margins are being squeezed and any growth is coming from price rises," he said.

He also warned that while further consolidation might help with scale, it might actually hamper growth due to the effort involved in integration and realizing cost-cutting efficiencies.

CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann said it was good to see the UK government implement challenging targets for standalone 5G coverage.

"Despite being early to launch 5G, the UK, like other European countries, has fallen behind the US and leading Asian markets in overall deployment," he said.

A dearth of exciting 5G applications for consumers has also been a major disappointment so far, Mann conceded, but he said that standalone 5G should open the door to many new opportunities in the enterprise sector, particularly through network slicing.

"This is where the industry is hanging its hat on meaningful returns on its huge network investment," he said.

Meanwhile, Tony Eigen, VP Marketing for RAN specialist Baicells, questioned the level of funding.

"The US government is investing $9 billion to deliver and improve 5G-based connectivity in suburban and rural communities. Setting positive targets for the nation is a step forward, but the government must continue to invest if it wants the UK to build a prosperous digital future for all," Eigen said.

Despite the lack of cash for infrastructure, DSIT is stumping up £40 million ($49.7 million) for a "5G innovation fund" aimed at promoting investment and adoption of the technology by businesses and public services.

This will establish 8 to 10 "5G Innovation Regions" across the UK, to help regions and local authorities to "unlock opportunities" tailored to each area's specific needs and strengths.

DSIT is also offering £100 million of funding for early-stage research into next-gen 6G networks, and thereby influence global standards and ensure that "the UK is at the forefront of both adopting and developing 6G."

While 6G is still little more than a twinkle in a venture capitalist's eye, some countries are already getting involved, with Nokia announcing last year that it is leading the German-funded 6G-ANNA project with the goal of driving pre-standardization activities from a German and European perspective.

The UK's efforts will be delivered via a series of Future Telecoms Research Hubs, coordinated through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) via the Technology Missions Fund (TMF).

Other funding commitments include £8 million for delivering high-speed broadband to 35,000 of the UK's most remote properties, giving them funding to get linked up to satellite broadband connections.

This follows on from a trial of satellite internet services announced in December. The government said it now has seven sites across the UK using a mixture of both OneWeb and Starlink equipment, including at Snowdonia National Park, North York Moors, Papa Stour (one of the Shetland Islands), and Lundy Island.

DSIT also announced plans to quicken the deployment of high-speed internet connectivity, working with local authorities and the telecoms industry to further trial the use of flexible permits for roadworks to install fiber in a number of areas.

Currently, operators must apply for a permit to deply in each individual street. Flexi-permits would allow them to work in multiple streets under a single permit, the department said. ®

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