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September 29, 2021updated 30 Sep 2021 3:08pm

How telcos can accelerate the slow pace of the UK 5G roll-out

China and other emerging economies are pushing ahead with adoption of 5G, but Britons have so far been waiting on the sidelines.

By Victor Vladev

The roll-out of commercial 5G networks is proceeding at different speeds around the world. China is pushing ahead with a national network, with more than half of its population owning 5G-enabled smartphones, but in contrast, many countries in the West such as the UK are falling behind on both network expansion and penetration among consumers, according to the International Telco Report 2021 by YouGov. Just 16% of consumers in the UK and France own smartphones that support 5G connections, against 55% in China and 48% in the United Arab Emirates.

The UK has over 84 million mobile phone subscriptions for a population of around 70 million and mobile data usage has surged since the onset of the pandemic. Yet, the country’s 5G roll-out is advancing slowly. (Photo by Adam Webb / Getty Images)

The survey confirms some of the insights from a recent GSMA report on the state of global mobile networks, which noted that the fastest growth in 5G adoption by 2025 will be observed in emerging economies and regions with larger unconnected populations, such as Asia Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa, while developed regions like Europe will progress more slowly as they already have high internet subscription and smartphone adoption rates.

The YouGov report is based on representative samples from 17 developed and emerging markets (with data on India, the UAE and Denmark representative of their urban populations), covering more than 18,000 respondents. It details the variations in adoption and consumer attitudes toward 5G across geographies, which help explain the gap between China and Western countries like the UK. 

Overall, the report concludes that telecommunication companies have been unsuccessful in trying to convince consumers of the benefits of 5G technology as just 23% of respondents across the globe agree that it will transform the way people connect to the internet, although experts regularly tout 5G as a driver of the next leap in technological advancement that's primed to transform industries from transportation and healthcare to manufacturing and mining.

5G enthusiasm is lowest in wealthy countries

Even though wealthier countries generally enjoy better access to technology, in the case of 5G wealth does not translate into higher engagement. One of the reasons, according to the YouGov report, is that consumers in countries with higher per-capita GDP tend to like their current mobile networks enough and keep their smartphones for longer before upgrading. 

This tendency has increased during the pandemic and the ensuing economic uncertainty. In the UK, the cost of new 5G-enabled phones is the second most important reason consumers are delaying upgrading (18%), after the general lack of interest in the roll-out of 5G technology (31%).

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While adoption in other developed markets, such as France, may be hampered by distrust of 5G technology, both over its potential for data privacy violations or out of health concerns over microwaves used in 5G transmission, that is not the case among Britons. 

Indeed, the YouGov survey shows they hold generally positive attitudes towards tech innovation, with 69% agreeing that technology is changing their lives for the better. An equal share of UK respondents are receptive to robots becoming part of their daily lives. 

The survey suggests that they are simply not as interested in 5G as in other technologies. Britons' response rate on questions relating to both the potential opportunities and the pitfalls of 5G is below 50%, with 36% admitting they are worried about the technology's potential impact on their data privacy and 35% concerned about general risks if the technology fails. The research shows 25% acknowledge that 5G has improved their digital experience while just 18% say the technology has provided benefits to many aspects of their lives.

Fast adopters still have concerns

The level of concern over the potential risks of 5G networks tends to be higher in the regions that have made better progress in adopting the technology, such as Asia Pacific (38%), specifically China (41%), and Europe (25%). India, which has not yet launched a commercial 5G network, is the exception to the rule, with its respondents being the most worried at 53%. At the other end of the spectrum is the UK, where just 18% of respondents have expressed concerns over 5G-related risks. 

The fact that Britons are neither overly enthusiastic nor excessively, worried by 5G, may be due to low exposure to information about the technology. The Covid-19 pandemic and the government's decision to ban equipment made by Chinese company Huawei from UK 5G infrastructure in July 2020 delayed the next-generation network roll-out in the country. In the meantime, Britons have been getting most of their information about 5G from the news (28%), in contrast with the United States, which had a head-start in the 5G roll-out and where consumers have mostly heard about it from telecom-sponsored adverts (22% against just 12% in the UK).  

This could end up being a good thing for British mobile network operators as their customers have been less affected by misinformation and conspiracy theories about 5G on social media. And with 84 million mobile phone subscriptions for a population of around 70 million, and with mobile data usage marking a 32.3% year-on-year jump in Q4 2020, British telcos need not worry about a lack of fertile ground for 5G expansion. If they want to capitalise on the maturity of the British mobile communications market, boosting advertising around their 5G services and reaching out to media outlets could help get their message across to customers.

UK 5G roll-out: how can operators attract new users?

The YouGov report suggests operators can mix their promotion of 5G with use cases that Britons find more exciting, such as wearables, virtual and augmented reality, or even robots. 

Such a strategy could prove successful if it is targeted at a younger audience. According to the YouGov poll, global consumers aged 18-24 are most likely to believe that 5G will change the ways people connect to the internet (63%) and the least likely to have no opinion (16%) on the topic. This higher level of engagement could open up opportunities for mobile operators to recruit them as early adopters. 

Current 5G customers, who tend to be younger, can act as ambassadors for the technology as they displayed more positive attitudes toward 5G after having experienced it. Globally, consumers with currently enabled 5G plans are more likely to believe that next-generation networks will change the way people connect with the internet (by 11 percentage points), compared to mobile users without 5G plans and even more willing to pay more for a better connection than non-users (by 23 percentage points).

At the same time, the YouGov report suggests that telcos could target middle-aged and older respondents who generally have more money set aside for discretionary spending. This, however, would require a concerted effort to convince them of the benefits of 5G as this cohort (the over 55s) is the most uninformed about 5G networks. In any case, British mobile operators would need to boost their marketing efforts to better promote their 5G services and YouGov makes a point to showcase its datasets and expertise as important resources that could help telcos achieve this goal.

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