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The 5G roll-out is buffering along

Posted: 06/12/2021

Is infrastructure to blame for the slow uptake of 5G, or is it lack of interest? asks Laura West.

It seems like 5G has been around for a while now, but how is the UK faring when it comes to rolling out availability across the nation? The new Electronic Communications Code is designed to assist operators in upgrading the national telecoms infrastructure, and rolling out 5G is seen as an important development in that respect.

Just as Covid-19 has affected every area of our lives and our economy, it has also had an impact on the development of the 5G infrastructure – but just what forces have been at play? How does coverage in the UK stack up against our international neighbours? And are we enjoying the same upload and download speeds as residents of the US or China, for example? Two recent reports cast light on how the UK is performing in terms of deploying the new technology, and what underlying opinions and attitudes are driving the current state of play.

Performance on the world stage

In terms of our performance relative to the international community, it’s not quite “nul points” á la Eurovision, but neither is the UK blazing a trail, despite Boris Johnson’s pledges to roll out the “next generation of innovative tech” to town and country alike. Although, if the delay is even in part the reason why our esteemed prime minister was unable to livestream his recent experiences of Peppa Pig World, we have at least some reason to be grateful.

Research by Ookla (Speedtest Intelligence Report Q2 2021) suggests that the UK sits in the middle of the field when it comes to 5G availability, with just over 10% of people connected. Leading the way is the US, where nearly half of consumers with 5G devices can access a 5G connection. Perhaps surprisingly, the Netherlands came in second at 44%, closely followed by South Korea. In terms of speeds, however, China and South Korea shared the top download speeds during Q1-Q2, with the UK following with around 167Mbps compared with China’s 440Mbps. It was a similar story for upload speeds, with China, South Korea and the Netherlands leading the way (China at circa 45Mbps). The UK clocked just under 16Mbps, which can only be described as poor performance, lagging behind the aforementioned countries, plus Ireland, Italy, Spain, the US, Japan and Germany – ahead only of France when compared with major trading partners.

It would be easy to attribute some of the UK’s poor performance in the international league tables to the still-developing infrastructure in the UK, and doubtless the issues operators face in obtaining new sites will have had some impact. Notwithstanding these issues, however, according to Ookla, the Q1-Q2 download figures were quite an improvement for the UK after two years of stagnant speeds. It described the change as being due to a “giant surge” in consumers switching to a 5G service during the first half of 2021.

Demand on the rise?

Undoubtedly, the growth of 5G to date has been limited by consumer sentiment. A recent YouGov survey, the International Telco Report 2021, reveals some interesting views about 5G in the UK and around the globe (with more than 18,000 respondents across 17 countries being surveyed). In the UK, only 16% of mobile users have a 5G-enabled device, compared with around a quarter worldwide. Only 9% of UK respondents with a 5G device were able to confirm that they pay for a 5G-enabled tariff, with a further 13% commenting “don’t know” – again, less than the international average where 14% pay for a tariff. The low take-up, even among those who have the right device, must signal that the benefits of 5G are yet to be adequately communicated by operators, according to YouGov.

However, in positive news, those who are enjoying 5G seem to understand the benefits – they are able not just to enter the burgeoning metaverse, but also enjoy better access to the developing internet of things, and are thus willing to pay a premium for 5G access – although the proportion of UK users choosing to do so was again lower than in other countries, on average, at 14% versus 31%.

Further, it is not the case that the UK, with its relatively high GDP per capita, is unusual in having a slow rate of 5G adoption. YouGov reports that consumers in developed nations seem to feel that their current networks are “good enough”, in contrast with less wealthy nations where there is more excitement about 5G. The UK in particular reports a high number of users who connect to the internet at home (90%-odd versus just over half internationally) – as such they are much less likely to use their smartphone’s internet connection. Finally, it seems British consumers just aren’t that bothered, with around one-third citing the top reason for failing to upgrade to 5G as lack of interest, and a fifth blaming the cost of obtaining a 5G device.

With the vast majority of consumers unlikely to suddenly change their opinions or habits and invest in 5G tech and tariffs, it would seem that if operators are to succeed in upselling to UK consumers they need to both improve the 5G experience and also communicate the benefits more effectively. While the first half of 2021 has therefore seen a shift, whether 5G now has the momentum it needs to become the norm will remain to be seen.

This article was published in Estates Gazette in December 2021.

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