Rebuilding a reimagined Connected Britain

It feels fitting that I spoke on the opening panel at Connected Britain from my home office this week given the focus was on the benefits of connectivity.

The event is one of my favourites on the circuit and gathers industry leaders from across Britain to reflect on the connectivity landscape we’re building. Joining colleagues from BT Group and Ericsson, I spoke about 5G deployment in the UK, and the economic benefits it will bring.

While the virtual nature of this year’s conference highlighted how crucial connectivity is for both consumers and businesses, its potential goes far beyond simply enabling conferences. The next phase of connectivity is 5G, which promises more than ever before in the shape of a more connected, and more productive, country.

Our 5G network is already live in parts of 75 towns and cities – well ahead of our target – and consumers are already enjoying superfast download speeds. The biggest opportunity for both us and the country though lies in business, enterprise, and the public sector use of 5G. That’s why we are working closely with a range of partners, including Northumbrian Water Group, the 5PRING consortium, and the University of Glasgow, to help maximise the benefits of 5G.

With Northumbrian Water Group we have been using 5G to see how it can deliver augmented reality (AR) mapping, remote expert learning and other operational efficiencies. Though the 5PRING consortium, we’re helping build 5G accelerators across the West Midlands for businesses to experience 5G and discover the benefits that it can bring. Meanwhile, 5G is already proving its worth in ways none of us could have ever predicted; with the University of Glasgow, we created a COVID-19 clinic-on-wheels to provide remote testing and tracking of care home residents and workers in Glasgow.

Our aim is to build connectivity into the fabric of society, creating an integrated infrastructure that will connect buildings, transport and utilities. From factories and hospitals to smart cities and secure private networks, we’re building a 5G network that will give the country immense benefits.

There are challenges ahead, however. We welcome recent government proposals to reform permitted development rights and the Electronic Communications Code as part of its COVID-19 recovery planning. It can currently take up to 18 months to either build new sites or upgrade existing ones. If we want to reap the full potential of 5G, this is simply too long.

Secondly, Ofcom must ensure the mobile sector strikes a balance between protecting consumers whilst still creating an environment that stimulates investment in 5G infrastructure. We must avoid a regime of over-regulation that would deter the investment needed for the mobile networks of the future.

Finally, 5G relies on fibre backhaul. Only 10% of UK households have a fibre broadband connection, which indicates just how much more fibre is needed to support 5G networks. The Government has pledged a complete “gigabit speed” UK network by 2025, and we must hold them to account.

It’s mobile that will get Britain back on its feet as we recover from COVID-19. 5G as the next step in that mobile journey presents unrivalled opportunity, not just to build a better society, but a completely re-imagined one. One that will be so much bigger than just better Netflix on the train.