Empowering the Tech Revolution with Advanced 5G Technology

Blog by Henry Berridge-Dunn, Public Affairs Manager at Three UK

We are on the cusp of perhaps the biggest step-change in technology since the invention of the World Wide Web. The converging development of advanced AI language models, extended reality and quantum computing are about to transform fields like applied research and innovation beyond recognition.

But while the doors these technologies will open for the research and innovation community are sparking excitement around the world, an equally important conversation is often overshadowed: how to deliver the network infrastructure we need to support them. Smart cities, autonomous vehicles and connected farms are all tantalising prospects for productivity and living standards, but the truth is that there is a lot of work still to do to build the networks that they will rely on.

In the UK, swift action is particularly imperative. 5G, particularly standalone 5G (5GSA), is set to become the cornerstone of the impending tech revolution, but our progress in its implementation is lagging. The most recent Ofcom Connected Nations report starkly illustrates our challenge. It found that the UK has the lowest 5G population coverage of the major European nations, at just 77% compared to Italy’s 99.7%. It’s worth noting that much of this 77% also uses Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), a technology that allows 4G and 5G to use the same spectrum, allowing for faster deployment but lower capacity.

The problem in the UK is primarily one of a lack of available investment. Last year, the Digital Connectivity Forum and Frontier Economics found in their report – The Investment Gap to Full 5G Rollout – that the industry can invest approximately £9 billion in new network infrastructure by 2030, compared to the £23-25 billion that needs investing for full 5G.The reasons for this are complex but a core factor is that two of our four mobile network operators – Three and Vodafone – are sub-scale and facing cashflow issues in an increasingly high-cost environment. This is a market failure we are trying to address through our proposed merger.

The initial rollout of 5G is also just the first step on a much longer road to advanced 5G adoption. Indeed, 5G as we currently know it is not enough to fully unlock the potential of a future digital economy. In the first instance, network operators are rolling out “non-standalone” 5G to increase network capacity at sites. This is an interim solution where 5G is being built into our radio access network (RAN) but the core of each site, akin to its brain, is still using 4G technology. When you see 5G next to your signal bars in the corner of your phone, this is the level of technology you are currently benefiting from. Is it better than 4G? Yes. Does it represent the necessary leap forward in network technology to power the coming tech revolution? Not yet.

5GSA, on the other hand, will bring a faster, more reliable and vastly more capable network. Unlike non standalone 5G, 5GSA has an advanced 5G core as well as external 5G hardware. This allows for new functions in the network that will have enormous and transformational impacts that fast-track the UK’s innovative capabilities.

For example, 5GSA would enable multi-access edge computing, allowing for cloud computing capabilities in the 5GSA network. This means network operators like Three can reduce the load on the core network at the same time as providing specific, high capacity and high-speed network services to certain sets of customers. This could, for example, underpin collaborative computing in research spaces that require significant levels of data processing, or even bolster the deployment of specific applications like a smart, autonomous car network.

Similarly, 5GSA enables the simultaneous connectivity of diverse future technologies through network slicing. Network slicing permits the operation of distinct networks on the same physical infrastructure. The possibilities that emerge from this are hugely exciting. Using the same common infrastructure, you could operate smart homes, connected cars and remote healthcare using slices of signal optimised for each of these use cases and not interfering with one another. For example, the smart home slice would be optimised for high bandwidth, the connected car slice for low latency and the remote healthcare slice for energy efficiency – all from the same network infrastructure.

This is hugely important because a common feature of many of the technologies we see on our horizon is that they are based on integrated network architecture but will need to operate distinctly from one another. Different use cases and technologies pose particular challenges, whether this be the need for bandwidth, speed or low latency. New functionality like multi-access edge computing and network slicing will allow us to meet these diverse challenges and provide tailored and effective networks at scale.

The future of technology has rarely felt as exciting as it does now. But for all the anticipation around what will soon be technologically possible, we must give due attention to building a world-leading network to ensure that we have the infrastructure we need to make these possibilities realities. This will mean a tight focus on unlocking network investment, removing barriers to deployment and positioning the UK at the forefront of research and innovation in future telecoms (for example in working to set the standards for what 6G technology will look like).

Mobile networks are often taken for granted, but they are the lifeblood of a digitally integrated and innovative economy. Few steps will supercharge UK tech and innovation more than the effective rollout of a cutting-edge 5GSA mobile network.



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