As Vodafone publishes its Digital Ambition 2030 report, Ahmed Essam, Vodafone's UK CEO, warns that the UK could miss out on £7bn of economic benefit if full 5G investment isn't extended to towns and smaller cities.
The enormous benefits of full 5G are clear. Developing high capacity, standalone infrastructure promises to be a gamechanger for our transport network, for industrial settings, such as smart factories, and for public services, such as hospitals.
What is less clear, is whether the UK will get to feel the full benefits of the next generation of mobile technology in the near future.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what 5G Standalone (5G SA) could mean for the UK in years to come. With an investment-friendly environment, the prize for the whole of the country is undoubtedly huge.
But the less uplifting reality, as our Digital Ambition 2030 report makes clear, is that the current regulatory and policy environment is simply not going to work for many of our smaller cities and towns.
The cost of failing to make the UK attractive as a place for investment in future 5G technology is considerable. Our research shows that the difference between an attractive and an unattractive investment environment is worth as much as £7bn a year to the UK economy by 2030.
So if the UK is to seize the opportunities offered by 5G SA then decision-makers in Westminster and Whitehall cannot afford to brush aside the findings of this report.
Winners and losers
Ministers advocating the ‘levelling up’ agenda should also be interested to see that most of the losses resulting from an unattractive investment environment are from outside of London and other major cities. The biggest cities, which have the biggest populations,, and are most commercially attractive to investors, previously saw the fastest 4G roll-out and are now well-positioned to attract investment in 5G.
Yet for many smaller cities and medium-sized towns in every region and nation of the UK, except London, it is a very different story.
In total, our report identifies 58 local authority areas that would see a high or very high benefit from a good investment environment for 5G. From this, we can see how smaller cities and towns up and down the country would be the big winners from getting 5G investment right.
Conversely, the same places would fall further behind if investment continues to be limited to major cities, inflicting significant and lasting damage on the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.
Of course, it is not too late to ensure that 5G investment works for the whole of the UK. With significant investment across all parts of the country, we can still create an investment-friendly environment that enables all of us to benefit from the next generation of mobile technology. The Government’s starting point should be to publish an updated 5G strategy which sets out specific ambitions and tactics for the roll-out of full 5G networks. This should mirror the approach that was taken to the roll-out of full-fibre broadband, with financial and legislative support to plug the gaps in semi-urban and rural areas.
Government should also use its procuring power to create market demand in 5G-related services, while the UK’s communications regulator has a key role to play in ensuring that the UK leaves all doors open in the quest to become a more attractive setting for investment in future 5G technology.
As the world wakes up the full extent of the opportunities offered by full 5G, the UK cannot afford to sleepwalk into a scenario in which we miss out on the economic benefits. Countries like South Korea are emerging as global leaders in 5G roll-out, with high levels of take-up by citizens and businesses.
In the years ahead, the UK could also make 5G work for all of our citizens and businesses. But to get there, we need a course correction. On the present trajectory, the risk is that only our biggest cities will feel the benefits of full 5G, while many smaller cities and towns, from Bath to Barnsley, get left behind.