Delays to the rollout of 5G could cost the UK tens of billions of pounds in lost economic output, according to a new report by the Centre for Policy Studies. In the CPS report, Upwardly Mobile: How the UK can gain the full benefits of the 5G revolution, former Government advisers Alex Jackman and Nick King argue that Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and the UK’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic is at risk without a faster 5G rollout – to the tune of £41 billion (€45.2bn).
According to the CPS, the delivery of 5G infrastructure is stalling. The set of rules meant to pave the way for the smooth rollout of the next generation telecommunication network, the Electronic Communications Code, is clearly not working as intended. Pressure on the rollout will only increase with the phasing out of Huawei from 5G infrastructure by 2027.
The report highlights that if delays continue at their current rate, by 2027, over 11 million households and businesses could be missing out on vital digital connectivity. Improving digital infrastructure supports the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, by helping local areas to retain and attract businesses and talent as well as by reducing regional inequalities. However, without reform to existing legislation, millions of households and businesses will suffer.
Using analysis by the independent consultancy Policy Points, the report estimates that if 5G coverage reaches a quarter more of the population than the Government’s current target of 51 per cent, it will produce GDP gains of £41.7 billion by 2027. It highlights that the difference between the UK being a leader and a laggard in 5G adoption could be as much as £173 billion in incremental GDP over the coming decade, as estimated by the Future Communications Challenge Group.
The manufacturing, construction and agricultural sectors have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic, and these would benefit significantly from improved connectivity. However, onerous planning rules and loopholes in existing legislation are slowing down the infrastructure upgrades needed to make the most of this mobile revolution in these much-needed industries.
To overcome these deployment barriers, Jackman and King are calling for urgent reforms to the Electronic Communications Code and national planning rules to speed up the rollout of 5G, unlock its potential and stimulate growth as the country recovers from the economic impact of Covid-19. It calls for sustained public sector leadership to deliver this, recognising that supporting digital infrastructure is one of the key things the Government can do that costs little, boosts growth and helps ‘level up’ the UK.
The report warns that without such efforts, the UK could miss its 2025 deadline for gigabit connectivity and 2027 target for 5G coverage, putting the potential economic gains at risk. It argues that policymakers must learn from the 4G rollout and remove the barriers to deployment. While 5G promises to create economic benefits through increased capacity, reliability and speed – vastly improving business productivity and removing barriers imposed by poor digital connectivity – the system is plagued by red tape.
“Digital networks and the services they support have underpinned our resilience to Covid-19 and they will drive our recovery,” suggested Jackman. “By expanding them, we deliver not only immediate benefits but also the essential foundation stone for 5G. This is no time for the government to be passive on the deployment environment – the difference between the UK as a 5G pioneer and ceding leadership to others is as much as £173 billion. Productivity gains to business, equality gains for regions and economic gains for the country are only as achievable as the networks we can access.”
“There aren’t many low-cost ways to unlock serious economic growth, but small changes to the Electronic Communication Code could unlock billions of pounds in our economy, drive the UK’s Covid-19 recovery, and deliver significant regional growth,” added Patricia Hewitt, Speed up Britain’s Campaign Chair, said. “All parts of the UK can benefit from this fantastic technology – but the Government needs to act now to avoid being left behind in the digital revolution.”
“It is our national mission to futureproof the UK’s networks with revolutionary 5G technology,” declared Matt Warman MP, Minister for Digital Infrastructure. “Thanks to government and industry action 5G is available in more than 70 towns and cities. Alongside record amounts of funding, we are exploring how to bust any barriers holding back industry from speeding up rollout. We’ve committed to reforming planning law and to consult on whether further reforms to the Electronic Communications Code are needed and will consider the points raised in this report carefully.”