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Trials and Tribulations: 5G in the UK

Dominique Adams

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Vodafone OpenRAN

UK network operator Vodafone has announced it has selected seven UK cities for 5G trials, while Ofcom’s spectrum allocation draws criticism.

Residents of Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool and London will be able to take part in Vodafone’s new ‘comprehensive’ mobile 5G trials towards the end of 2018.

The trials are part of the network’s plans to commercially launch ‘full 5G’ across the UK by 2020 and to coincide with the wider availability of 5G-compatible devices.

However, a new report from Inca has warned that the current system used to auction and control the mobile spectrum is inefficient and could leave more rural parts of the country without access to the next generation of mobile coverage.

Vodafone Chief Executive Nick Jeffery said: “We want to make 5G and new fibre broadband services available to consumers and business throughout the UK, delivering a Gigabit society for all. We will also be bringing ultra-fast 4G to several hundred sites in hard to reach rural areas this year, building on our position as the network that offers the best voice coverage in the UK.”

A 50MHz Chunk

Vodafone is currently in discussions with its business customers over introducing new 5G-ready applications such as augmented and virtual reality technology to offices, hospitals and factories. The trial will not be open to consumers but will instead focus on businesses. The announcement follows the company’s recent success at Ofcom’s 5G radio auction.

Vodafone successfully outbid its rivals earlier this year, spending £378 million to secure a 50Mhz chunk of the 3.4GHz spectrum.

Philip Marnick, Ofcom’s Spectrum Group Director said of spectrum: “it will help improve people’s experience of using mobile broadband today, and also help companies prepare for future 5G services.”

Mobile Spectrum Sharing

Critics of the auction method of allocating spectrum say that other independent operators cannot compete with the four big mobile network operators (MNOs), including Vodafone. They have exclusive use of what they buy, with no obligation to use it.

This could lead to much of spectrum sitting unused when it could be used to connect rural communities and hard-to-reach locations.

It makes far more economic sense to bring 5G to large urban areas, with lots of users, first. The spectrum which could also be used to deliver basic wireless broadband services to neglected and digitally excluded rural communities, with far fewer users could sit vacant and unused for a significant period of time.

Inca claimed that the problem would doubtless be compounded, with the upcoming auctions of additional spectrum in the 3.6GHz to 3.8GHZ band likely to see licences again awarded only to the large MNOs for use in urban 5G roll-outs.

Experts have warned this could lead to the aspirations for full 5G mobile coverage across the UK failing. A report commissioned by independent network builders’ body Inca supports this assertion.

The report proposes that Ofcom should consider allocating spectrum on a geographical basis, with smaller players permitted to buy usage rights for spectrum in rural areas where the MNOs are unlikely to roll out 5G for some time, while still letting them bid for the more valuable chunks of spectrum in towns and cities.

Malcolm Corbett, CEO of Inca said:

“The way spectrum is currently managed means that large parts of the UK won’t get access to services promised by the big operators which tend to be the winners in the national spectrum auctions.

“This means much of the spectrum is likely to sit unused when it could be used to connect entire communities in rural and hard-to-reach locations.”

If the way spectrum is managed does not change, there is a real risk that the UK will be left behind.”

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Dominique Adams

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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