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Consistency over speed

2 October 2017

The article at a glance

As the UK moves towards new 5G mobile technology, a study at Cambridge Judge Business School urges modest yet reliable mobile broadband …

As the UK moves towards new 5G mobile technology, a study at Cambridge Judge Business School urges modest yet reliable mobile broadband connectivity, even if this entails a reduction of large headline speeds. Consistency rather than speed is the key to bolster the digital economy and boost productivity.

Network cable with Fiber optics light internet concept

As tech companies and policymakers prepare for the next generation of mobile-phone technology, known as 5G, a new study at Cambridge Judge Business School urges caution in setting unrealistic connectivity requirements in rural areas. Instead, the focus should be on ensuring reliable and consistent connectivity everywhere for firms and consumers.

Based on a model patterned after the rollout of the previous generation of mobile technology (4G LTE), 90 per cent of the UK population could be served by ultrafast 5G mobile broadband speed of 50 megabits per second (Mbps) by 2026, but 3.6 per cent of the population would be left out of the 5G footprint by 2030. Left to market forces alone, without government subsidy, about 10 per cent of the population is unlikely to be served with 50 Mbps broadband by 2026 due to “exponentially increasing costs” in low population density areas, the study says.

The authors believe that consumers, particularly in rural areas, are unlikely to require such speeds to conduct most common tasks using the Internet.

“These results suggest that policymakers need to be cautious regarding large headline speeds in rural areas,” says the study published in the journal Telecommunications Policy. “If these are desired politically, then financial support may be required. However, it may be more appropriate to focus on achieving near-ubiquitous coverage of a moderate level using spectrum resources to support the vertical industries that 5G will purportedly enable.

“Unless we see a new ‘killer-app’ for this generation, there is a high probability that market-based 5G ultrafast broadband infrastructure will mainly be the prerogative of urban and suburban areas – at least in the foreseeable future within Britain,” says the study, entitled “The cost, coverage and rollout implications of 5G infrastructure in Britain”.

The UK government is paying a lot of attention to 5G technology. As outlined in the Building Our Industrial Strategy green paper issued in January, the government’s new National Productivity Investment Fund earmarked £740 million to support fibre broadband connections and future 5G mobile technology. In a December 2016 report, the National Infrastructure Commission said that 5G “offers us a chance to start again and get ahead” after falling behind in 4G technology: Britain is ranked only 54th in the world for 4G coverage, “and the typical user can only access 4G barely half the time.”

The new academic study concludes,through cost modelling that in order to achieve the productivity benefits that 5G can provide through the Internet of things and other new technologies, reliability should be the aim, rather than trying to deliver faster mobile broadband.

Dr Edward J. Oughton
Dr Edward J. Oughton

“We don’t need higher and higher headline speeds, but what we do need is reliable connectivity – to ensure we can reap the productivity benefits of new digital applications, platforms and services,” said Dr Edward Oughton, Research Associate in Technology Modelling at the Centre for Risk Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School, who co-authored the report with Dr Zoraida Frias of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. “We haven’t been able to achieve this with 4G LTE in the UK as patchy reception often leads to disruption. Operators can struggle to deploy new base stations and the industry has been experiencing declining revenues, meaning there isn’t much capability for large scale infrastructure investment.”

Currently in the UK, indoor coverage of 4G technology reaches 72 per cent of premises and outdoor coverage reaches 86 per cent of premises, with four per cent not covered by any operator. Coverage, congestion and indoor effects make it difficult for users to achieve consistent connectivity, so “mobile consumers are often unhappy with current levels of coverage, leading to both widespread media attention and political interest,” the study says.

The research was supported by the UK Engineering and Physical Science Research Council, and the National Infrastructure Commission provided funding for initial research on the report to cover travel and writing costs. All research was conducted independently.