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April 11, 2023updated 12 Apr 2023 2:10pm

DSIT commits to 5G standalone UK coverage by 2030, but experts are sceptical

With 4G connectivity not yet at 95% and limited funding, analysts question whether the government can match its ambition with results.

By Sophia Waterfield

An investment package worth nearly £150m has been unveiled by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) to boost next-generation digital connectivity such as 5G standalone and 6G in the UK. The UK government has also published its Wireless Infrastructure Strategy policy paper to address several challenges with telecommunications such as the high costs of upgrading networks and mobile coverage quality and access to spectrum. 

Michelle Donelan, Technology secretary, DSIT
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan has announced the government’s ambitions for 5G standalone coverage by 2030. (Photo by Eddie Chalmers/Getty Images)

Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan announced the investment package and strategy on 11 April, setting out the government’s ambitions to “blanket the country with the fastest, most reliable wireless coverage”. 

She says that all populated areas will be provided with ‘standalone’ 5G, also known as 5G-plus, by 2030, with an additional investment of £8m committed to delivering high-speed broadband for up to 35,000 properties in the country’s remotest areas. According to DSIT, 77% of the population already has access to basic 5G from one connectivity provider. 

However, according to its Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, the UK has yet to achieve 100% 4G connectivity, bringing into question whether the government’s plans for 5G are achievable. The policy paper published by DSIT says that through the £1bn Shared Rural Network Programme, the government is looking to push 4G coverage to 95% of the UK’s landmass. 

Regulator and UK mobile network operators will be held to account for 5G

As part of its strategy, DSIT has said it is taking action on reporting and affordability of connectivity in the UK. As part of this, regulator Ofcom and UK mobile network operators (MNOs) will be held to a higher account in delivering accurate data. 

“We have asked Ofcom to continue to hold the mobile network operators (MNOs) to account through on-the-ground signal testing and to improve the accuracy of its coverage reporting through increased use of crowdsourced data,” DSIT’s strategy reads. 

The government department has also asked Ofcom to “consider how it can improve the accuracy of reporting network performance levels in rural areas and for indoor coverage.” There has also been an emphasis placed on defining and measuring good coverage of 4G and 5G networks

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Technology secretary Michelle Donelan said: “Our Wireless Infrastructure Strategy sets out our plan to ensure everyone, no matter where they live, can reap the benefits of improved connectivity.”

5G standalone across all of the UK by 2030 might not be attainable

Another part of the strategy is the push on 5G standalone, also known as 5G-plus. This is providing 5G connectivity without relying on 4G LTE for data transfer and signalling. 

The government says that by meeting its nationwide coverage of 5G-plus by 2030, rural communities can reap the full benefits of 5G. It is also pledging that railways and hospitals will also make use of 5G, making trains safer and punctual and hospitals able to take advantage of cutting-edge healthcare innovations. 

However, as telecoms analyst Paolo Pescatore, PP Foresight told Tech Monitor, achieving this ambition could be challenging. Vodafone did a trial of 5G standalone in January 2023 for selected customers in cities such as London, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, who used handsets such as Samsung Galaxy S21/S22 and Oppo Find X3/X5 Pro on Unlimited Max plans. 

“For the short-term, achieving the standalone 5G target might be challenging for some,” Pescatore told Tech Monitor. “All UK mobile operators still rely on non-standalone. 

“This underlines the need for further and ongoing investment in networks at a time when margins are being squeezed; growth coming due to price rises.”

6G is on the UK government’s radar but receives lacklustre investment

While DSIT has not announced further funding for telecommunication infrastructure as part of its package, it has initially committed up to £100m to put the UK at the forefront of future research. However, one analyst told Tech Monitor that the funding is “limited” and that it could result in innovation being commercialised by companies outside of the UK. 

“I think the UK hasn’t been particularly good at protecting intellectual property in high-tech areas,” said Tony Cripps, principal analyst covering transportation and smart cities, Global Data. 

“It ends up going abroad, whether through acquisition by foreign companies or [innovation] developed in universities gets picked up for a relatively small fee and then commercialised hugely by another company elsewhere that actually gains most of the benefit.”

The analyst continued that the government is “posturing” as a powerhouse of innovation, yet he has yet to see how the UK benefits. 

Read more: UK government joins open RAN clamour at Mobile World Congress

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