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Spring Budget 2017: Expert welcomes UK government commitment to digital connectivity and new 5G strategy

The publication of the UK government's new 5G strategy and its positive response to National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) recommendations shows that the UK government recognises the role it has to play in improving digital connectivity in the country, an expert has said.09 Mar 2017

Technology projects expert Natalie Trainor of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said technology and major infrastructure projects will become much more interlinked in future and that the plans outlined on Wednesday can help the UK take forward the opportunities this will present.

In a new 5G strategy (70-page / 17.66MB PDF), published alongside its Spring Budget 2017 papers, the government announced it will set up "5G testbeds and trials" to help build the business case for investment in '5G' technologies and infrastructure in the country, as well as further plans to improve telecoms infrastructure sharing and free up spectrum for 5G services.

It also promised to consider changes to planning laws and regulation, beyond those contained in the planned new Electronic Communications Code, so as "to meet the unique challenges of 5G infrastructure deployment" before the end of this year.

The government's 5G strategy was informed by recommendations made by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) late last year. At the time, the NIC said that mobile connectivity has become "a necessity" and set out seven recommendations on how the UK can deliver on its goal of becoming a world leader in the deployment of 5G mobile telecoms networks.

In its report, the NIC urged the government to reshape the way responsibility for digital infrastructure is attributed across government. It said a single cabinet minister should be given "the authority to shape policy and delivery across government". Trainor said the change of approach announced by the government on Wednesday in response to those recommendations was welcome.

"The government has clearly considered the recommendations put forward by the NIC, responding to each one individually," Trainor said. "In its report the NIC said that the government's move to create a director general lead in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) was 'a good first step'. It is positive to see the government seeking to strengthen its telecoms capabilities further with the creation of a director or telecoms role and new centre of 5G expertise."

According to the government's report, the new "centre of 5G expertise" will, among other things, coordinate "5G development activity across central government and other public sector bodies" and "inform the policy and regulatory framework that will be required to provide the right incentives for investment both in 5G infrastructure and in the development of 5G applications and services".

Trainor also welcomed the government's establishment of a new Digital Infrastructure Officials Group, which will bring together senior staff from across departments. It is also positive to see digital connectivity of the UK's road and rail networks being looked at again too, she said.

Trainor said: "The new Digital Infrastructure Officials Group should provide a forum to facilitate greater awareness and co-ordination of public projects which include digital infrastructure, and tasking the Department for Transport and DCMS to work closely with industry to explore models to future-proof roadside and trackside networks is a further positive step. It remains to be seen if this will succeed in establishing digital connectivity as a core objective of non-digital infrastructure projects, and practicality, affordability and value for money considerations may inhibit this."

"In the coming weeks and months, it would be good to understand more how the new roles and functions within DCMS will interface and work with existing teams within Broadband Delivery UK and the 5G innovation centre at the University of Surrey," Trainor said.

Under the government's plans, local authorities will be incentivised to set out "local connectivity plans". Those plans could influence whether they will obtain central government funding to grow either fibre networks or participate in the testbeds and trials programme.

Trainor said that it was good to see that the "critical role of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships" in support digital connectivity had been acknowledged in the strategy, but said "how they will be incentivised and supported, beyond guidance on local connectivity plans, to do this remains to be seen".

Trainor said that it was positive that the government will work with UK telecoms regulator Ofcom to "identify and tackle unnecessary barriers to infrastructure sharing" and "explore the potential for a clearer and more robust framework to allow companies to share infrastructure, while preserving investment incentives", as well as explore the regulatory regime for spectrum. "The government recognises that 5G is and will be part of a much wider ecosystem of mobile connectivity," she said.

In its 5G strategy paper, the government said 5G could be an enabler for smart cities, driverless cars, advanced manufacturing and improvements in retail logistics, as well as innovations in digital health such as "wearable sensors".

However, it said that "the business case for the investment required for the deployment of 5G is not yet established".

"We will use the 5G testbeds and trials programme to test use cases in both rural and urban areas; and to improve our understanding of the economics of infrastructure deployment in different scenarios and locations and how infrastructure can be deployed in a cost-effective way," it said.

According to the government, businesses will need to provide "the vast majority of the capital investment required for both full-fibre and 5G rollout". However, it said that the additional investment necessary for digital infrastructure to support 5G applications and services might not all need to be provided by established telecoms companies "given the breadth of the potential 5G ecosystem".

On Thursday, Ofcom announced (79-page / 734KB PDF) that it plans to make 125 MHz more radio spectrum available for Wi-Fi services. The spectrum is contained in the 5.8 GHz band. It plans to introduce new regulations to accommodate the change and is consulting on its plans until 11 April.