Toward the end of the summer the Scottish Government, overseen by connectivity minister Paul Wheelhouse MSP, revealed its 5G strategy for Scotland.
5G is the standard for next-generation mobile networks and expectations of 5G are high; promising to be transformational in terms of improved end-user experiences, new applications, new business models and new services riding on the back of multigigabit speeds, improved network performance and reliability.
5G networks are forecast by independent economic studies to deliver very significant economic gains. The UK Government has been funding 5G pilots across the UK for a number of years now and the Scottish Government, keen not to miss out on the prize, issued a 5G strategy and action plan on how it intends to support Scotland to become a 5G leader.
Remote and rural 5G use cases
The 5G strategy states that the Scottish Government will work with partners to define and fund a number of 5G uses cases. Two key points stand out: remote and rural use cases feature heavily, as does the aspiration to enable commercial productivity through the Internet of Things (IoT).
On the first point, making a commercially sustainable business case for 5G in remote and rural areas is challenging. That’s why in its latest series of rural funded 5G pilots, the UK Government insisted that proposals for remote and rural use cases must submit demonstrate commercial sustainability beyond the initial funding period.
Secondly, the Scottish Government has already funded a Scotland-wide IoT network using LoRaWAN technology. IoT Scotland appears to have placed a strong focus on public sector applications – particularly with a focus on hard-to-reach areas. While admirable, there is a danger that 5G is pedalled as the optimal connectivity solution for remote and rural areas.
5G use cases in remote and rural areas should, at least initially, complement existing lower-cost technologies and solutions to stand any chance of achieving commercial sustainability.
Furthermore, there must be clear guidance on maintaining separation between 5G based IoT use cases and those using IoT Scotland; otherwise, this will result in a duplication of infrastructure and suboptimal value-for-money for the public sector.
Access to public sector assets and supporting local authorities
Public sector assets (In particular, council-owned streetlights) are extremely useful in the deployment of 5G networks, most notably in urban areas. The 5G strategy states it will make it easier to access public sector assets. However, giving telecoms operators access to streetlights has led some to local authorities being threatened with legal action thanks to recently-introduced and very controversial telecoms legislation.
It is of no surprise, therefore, that Intelligens Consulting has witnessed a number of local authorities significantly downgrade their plans to support the rollout of 5G networks as a result.
Fixing this botched legislation to balance the public interest with the commercial interest of telecoms operators will take time, but is essential. In the meantime, the Scottish Government should sponsor an industry-wide discussion between operators and local authorities to settle on a process that mitigates the threat of any legal challenge when making streetlights available.
Digitalisation of Transport Scotland assets and the neutral host model
The strategy states the ambition to create sustainable 5G rail and road corridors and promoting the use of the neutral host model. Intelligens Consulting has recently advised a number of UK transport authorities on their 4G and 5G strategy and has learned that the demand case for complete coverage is not sustainable except in a few rare cases where demand is extremely high and concentrated. The demand case is difficult even when assuming the neutral host model.
Furthermore, achieving complete trackside or roadside coverage by 5G will require a significant investment in 5G technology and is highly sensitive to demand and market conditions.
The investment is unlikely to be met by the private sector alone, and the Scottish Government will need to make a significant multimillion-pound investment to support the availability of roadside and trackside infrastructure if full 5G coverage is desired.
By and large, the much-awaited 5G strategy is highly welcome. It signals the Scottish Government’s intention of becoming a 5G leader and sets the ambition in the right trajectory. Now, the government must work with industry experts who possess the detailed knowledge and expertise to accelerate these plans and aspirations so that Scotland can thrive in a 5G future.