The Wireless Infrastructure Strategy must be supported with greater investment if the UK is to remain competitive
By Joshua Taggart, Junior Consultant

Yesterday, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) outlined its priorities for broadband and 5G in its new Wireless Infrastructure Strategy. The Strategy is intended to underpin the Prime Minister’s five priorities for Government, helping to create better-paid jobs and opportunities across the country.

The Strategy acknowledges that “advanced wireless connectivity will be the foundation on which we build industries, jobs, skills and services for the future”. A few of the commitments in the Strategy are very promising, expanding upon existing agreements and targets of which Ofcom, the communications regulator, has already been aiming towards. £8 million is being devoted to delivering high-speed broadband for up to 35,000 of the most remote properties across the UK. This will doubtless be welcomed by those living in rural areas of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, who require internet connections for both economic and social contribution to modern life.

Additionally, the continuing rollout of 4G to 95 per cent of the population is welcome, and all urbanised areas aim to be covered by ‘standalone’ 5G or 5G+ by 2030. There will also be a £40 million 5G innovation fund to promote investment and adoption of 5G, lining up with the Government’s push to promote innovation and productivity gains.

This Strategy reinforces that DSIT has a clear agenda with unified themes of pushing for growth across the whole of the economy – chiming with voters who broadly support the Levelling Up agenda and are keen to see it implemented.

For the private sector, the Strategy sets out a pro-investment framework to drive down deployment costs and improve the supply to meet rising demand. As the workplace and public life become increasingly interconnected, internet usage and broadband availability are more important than ever, and it is crucial that communities and regions are not left behind as areas such as London become more advanced to compete with global rivals such as New York, Shanghai, and Paris.

Of note, the Government has asked Ofcom to review and set out an evidence-based rationale for spectrum fees by the end of this year. Mobile phone groups like Vodafone won more than £220 million from the Government in 2019 after a lawsuit against Ofcom went in mobile companies’ favour. Networks have been urging Ofcom to re-examine license fees for masts, which are currently under review.

The Strategy recognises that to realise the benefits of wireless connectivity, “concerted action from government, industry, and others” is necessary. The Government was also clear to state that “there is no ‘magic number’ of mobile operators”, whilst noting all decisions on consolidation are for the Competition and Markets Authority to examine as the independent regulator. A DSIT spokesperson later clarified that taxpayer money will not be used to subsidise any necessary network upgrades.

This conscious push for greater telecommunications innovation is a welcome sign that the Government is taking innovation seriously. Many future growth industries, from artificial intelligence to cryptocurrencies, will benefit enormously from a more stable, reliable, and advanced telecoms network in the UK, boosting productivity and unlocking growth in flourishing sectors of the economy.

Leading on 5G innovation and even a roadmap for 6G will allow the UK to become a market leader in what will inevitably be rolled out globally. To determine the future of the internet, the UK wants to have a greater seat at the table, and getting ahead on new technologies, green finance, digital currencies, and other policy areas is a key focus for the Sunak Government.

Although the Strategy has been met with a warm response, many stakeholders such as Baicells and PP Foresight are calling for continued investment into infrastructure to ensure that UK mobile operators were equipped to provide non-standalone 5G and the necessary infrastructure to maintain the network.

Howard Watson, BT Group Chief Security and Networks Office, said the 5G goals set out in the Strategy “can only be delivered if significant new private sector investment is unlocked, which will require delivery of ambitious policy reform… in particular modernising net neutrality rules to ensure content providers are incentivised to use networks efficiently.” Net neutrality rules were mentioned in the Strategy, and it will be interesting to see the stance that DSIT takes.

For these stakeholders, it is crucial to get the balance right. Innovation is positive, but without support for existing structures, it is unlikely that the Government can utilise what already exists, and there needs to be a greater emphasis on fixing problems now as well as preparing for the road ahead. Less horizon scanning, more immediate solutions to existing problems.

Overall, the Strategy provides a welcome signal to the private sector and the public at large that a better-connected UK will be a more prosperous one. However, we can expect continuing pressure upon DSIT (and eventually the Treasury) to back up these proposals with the funding and focus to deliver on them.

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