In 2019, the Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, pledged to make “gigabit broadband available to 85% of the UK by 2025 and nationwide by 2030.” (The party’s election manifesto also pledged £5 billion to do so.) However, by the end of 2020, the government had U-turned on this policy and slashed its pledged investment down to £1.2 billion, citing the COVID pandemic.
Key to the government’s pledge to improve internet connectivity and broadband access is the need to roll out commercial 5G networks. 5G is critical to realizing the “fourth industrial revolution” – that is, the digital transformation of the economy and society. Beyond internet speed and data, the strength of 5G allows us to reimagine industries and organisations and make them faster, smarter, and more precise.
However, Britain is falling behind its peers – as well as developing countries – when it comes to 5G network rollout.
The development of 5G infrastructure is integral to Britain’s future economic competitiveness. The country is, for all intents and purposes, in a race to stay economically and technologically relevant. With Brexit undermining Britain’s economic prospects further, never has this been more important.
As a study by OpenSignal shows, the UK ranks an abysmal 39 out of 56 developed and developing countries on 5G rollout. In other words, the UK is well and truly in the digital “slow lane.” A May 2023 Ofcom assessment notes: “5G mobile coverage from at least one operator is available at 82% of places where people live and work in the UK. However, the coverage falls to just 22% for areas covered by all network providers.”
“The UK’s 5G download speed is slower than that of other developed markets like France, Germany, and the Netherlands, ranking the country 21st out of 25. This is despite the UK having the largest 5G-capable smartphone sales in Europe,” notes telecommunications publication ISP. “UK has not yet realized the promise of true 5G and has lost its place as a leader in this field. The government has set a target to have all populated areas covered by 5G networks by 2030, but there is concern that falling behind in the 5G race could result in slower economic growth for the UK.”
In 2020, the British government banned network company Huawei from participating in its 5G rollout on claims of “national security,” succumbing to international pressure from the United States. Boris Johnson had previously resisted such calls for a ban, citing that its participation was integral to the government’s manifesto pledge on broadband availability.
And it’s had a detrimental impact: “Despite being one of the first countries to implement 5G commercially, the UK is now falling behind in the global race for high-speed fifth-generation mobile networks,” ISP elaborates. “Limited investment by mobile phone operators and disruption caused by the government’s ban on Huawei have contributed to this setback.”
In removing Huawei, the UK’s 5G rollout has been set back years at an estimated cost of £18.2 billion to GDP. The decision also costs an additional £2 billion to network providers to replace the equipment by the deadline of 2027. The subsequent delay to 5G rollout this decision caused, combined with the narrowing of the market which has driven up prices, now means an additional £34 billion is required to meet the demand for 5G by new technologies and industries.
The UK government, however, is not willing to invest that figure.
On the other hand, countries that did not make this decision are powering ahead in 5G technology. For example, as quoted by Mobile Magazine, Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica (who went with Huawei), “stated that 90% of the country’s population will have access to 5G by 2022. The organisation already provides 5G services to 80% of Spain’s population, available in 1300 towns and cities across the country.” In addition, some developing countries outside of Europe are now even moving beyond 5G – such as the Philippines, a country far poorer than the UK and with a much larger population, which is working with Huawei to advance 5.5G infrastructure, bringing faster speeds and the ability to support 100 billion connections.
The Conservative Government ultimately failed on its pledge to “level up” the UK through broadband and internet connectivity, with rural areas being left behind. Instead of making Britain more economically competitive and “global,” this U-turn undermined Britain’s technological development by succumbing to foreign pressure.
Rather than making Britain a leader in high-tech connectivity, the situation is once again a case of, “Will the last one to leave Britain please turn out the lights?”