UK unveils future telecoms strategy
April 11, 2023
By Colin Mann
According to the UK Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, digital infrastructure is crucial to unlocking opportunities for growth and prosperity and delivering the department’s mission to put the UK at the forefront of global scientific and technological advancement. Future telecoms is one of the critical technologies identified in its recently published Science and Technology Framework.
Accordingly, the government has announced a package of measures to drive the deployment and adoption of fixed and wireless networks and to invest in the next generation of connectivity.
A new Wireless Infrastructure Strategy
The Wireless Infrastructure Strategy sets out a policy framework to affirm our unwavering commitment to extending 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the population, deliver standalone 5G to all populated areas in the UK by 2030, and invest £40 million (€45.5m) to drive take up of innovative 5G-enabled services for businesses and the public sector. It also sets out a comprehensive 6G strategy to harness and develop the UK’s strengths in future telecoms, and to ensure that the UK can influence and benefit from the development of 6G in a way that meets the UK’s future connectivity needs.
Key measures in the strategy
- A new ambition of nationwide coverage of standalone 5G to all populated areas by 2030 – so everyone can benefit from new technology enabled by advanced wireless technology
- A clear strategic framework to help the private sector invest in 5G networks by supporting strong competition and investment, driving down deployment costs and stimulating demand, including through:
- continuing to remove practical barriers to the deployment of 5G infrastructure
- confirming an openness to market consolidation, noting that merger decisions are taken on their merits by the Competition and Markets Authority
- ensuring that net neutrality rules are fit for purpose
- asking Ofcom to review and set out a clear evidenced-based and forward-looking rationale for its approach to setting spectrum fees by the end of 2023
- working with Ofcom and industry to refarm spectrum where it is not being used efficiently
- maximising the UK’s influence at international spectrum negotiations, with alignment of international and domestic spectrum frameworks where possible
- Fixing coverage reporting, including on trains and in rural areas, shining a light on where coverage needs to be improved
- £40 million new funding to establish eight to 10 5G Innovation Regions across the UK. This will enable regions and local authorities to unlock opportunities using advanced wireless connectivity, tailored to each area’s specific needs and strengths, encourage 5G take-up in the public sector and in industry and strengthen the case for investment at the local level, driving productivity and growth.
- Establishing a national taskforce to encourage take-up and investment at the local level
- As part of wider plans to boost public sector adoption of 5G and other advanced wireless connectivity, ensuring new hospitals have access to 5G or similar advanced wireless connectivity, allowing major improvements in healthcare delivery.
- Setting out a clear strategy for influencing the development of 6G, so the UK strengthens and maintains its role as a science superpower
- Launching an £8 million fund to provide capital grants to further promote new satellite connectivity to the most remote 35,000 premises.
Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said: “Our Wireless Infrastructure Strategy sets out our plan to ensure everyone, no matter where they live, can reap the benefits of improved connectivity. We are doing this by ensuring all populated areas in the UK will be served by what I call ‘5G-plus’ technology by 2030. We are also committing £8 million to provide satellite connectivity for our most remote communities so that no one is left behind.”
“We are also supporting long term economic growth in the UK with a £40 million fund to encourage innovative 5G investment across the private and public sector. This will help industries transform at a time when the ways we communicate, work and do business are on the precipice of significant evolution.”
“This package of measures turbocharges our progress towards becoming a science and tech superpower with a substantial initial investment in the future of telecoms. We want to ensure that 6G is developed to meet the needs of people and businesses right across the UK and bolster our international competitiveness throughout the economy.”
Investing up to £100 million in a new future telecoms mission
The 6G Strategy, set out in the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, is supported by a new national mission to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of future telecoms technologies.
The 6G strategy sets out how we will work to shape the next generation of wireless technology. We want to ensure that 6G is developed to meet the needs of people and businesses right across the UK and support our international competitiveness throughout the economy.
The government has established future telecoms as one of its five critical priority technologies in our goal to be a science superpower by 2030.
Alongside the 6G Strategy, the government has therefore launched a new, long-term national mission, with initial funding of up to £100 million, to ensure the UK is at the leading-edge of future telecoms and 6G technologies.
These next generation networks will herald a new, richer generation of Internet based services, power rapidly growing global digital economies and support net zero – from complex AI and quantum-enabled networks of satellites and drones, right down to fibre-optic networks beneath our feet.
A key element of this mission will be a series of Future Telecoms Research Hubs, where early stage research will be coordinated through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) via the Technology Missions Fund (TMF).
These Hubs will build on the springboard provided by EPSRC’s £6 million investment for three federated and connected platforms in the communications technologies space. Supported by the UK Telecoms Innovation Network (UKTIN), these platforms will engage with the telecoms sector, catapults and internationally around three broad themes: a network of networks; wireless and wired systems and spectrum; and, cloud and distributed computing.
The platforms will draw together the existing portfolio of EPSRC investments in telecoms-related areas into a coordinated approach.
These Hubs will help to develop an Intellectual Property (IP) portfolio to strengthen UK companies’ global competitiveness, as well as provide the foundation for spinout companies, and attract further industry investment in the UK’s world leading research base.
Support for early-stage research will be complimented by funding for application focussed ‘challenges’ – delivered via Innovate UK – supporting companies to accelerate innovative solutions to market and encourage disruptive collaboration across the UK’s diverse Future Telecoms landscape. This aims to cement early UK market leadership, additionally attracting follow-on investment for companies to scale-up and grow in the UK.
The UK will work closely with its international allies to deliver this mission – ensuring it is influential in shaping the global landscape, embedding our values into future telecoms technology, and protecting our security interests.
Funding opportunities for industry, researchers and others through this investment are available throughout 2023 and into next year as well. All funding will be awarded and managed by UKRI on behalf of UK government. Further information will be released shortly.
In addition, to inform the next steps beyond this Spending Review Period, the government is commissioning a feasibility study to explore the potential for new infrastructure provision to improve competitiveness and drive growth in the UK telecoms sector and foster UK capability.
£8 million capital grants for satellite connectivity
The government says it continues to make rapid progress through commercial and subsidised rollouts to achieve our goal of future proof and resilient connectivity to over 99 per cent of the UK by 2030. Nevertheless there will be some areas – perhaps around 100,000 premises – where it is expected that gigabit will not be possible.
The government has launched an £8 million fund to provide capital grants to further promote new satellite connectivity to the most remote 35,000 premises and to help ensure that these premises get improved broadband where required.
This work follows the launch of the government’s Alpha Trial programme in December 2022, to test the capability and viability of low earth orbit satellites to deliver high-speed connectivity to homes and businesses in very hard to reach areas.
The government has now launched a total of seven sites across the UK using a mixture of both OneWeb and Starlink equipment. These sites include some of the most remote areas of the UK including Snowdonia National Park, North York Moors, Papa Stour and Lundy Island.
Further details on the value of the grants, which premises will be able to apply for the scheme and how they can apply will be released in due course.
Additional policy measures for those premises where it is believed that Fixed Wireless Access connectivity will be possible will be brought forward later this year.
Rural 10 point plan
The Wireless Infrastructure Strategy sets out a 10 point plan to support rural communities access and adopt the connectivity they need to drive economic growth.
- The £5 billion Project Gigabit will deliver future proof broadband to rural areas, with £1 billion already made available. (A new almost £14 million contract will bring gigabit broadband connections to around 10,500 homes and businesses in the New Forest.)
- In very hard to reach areas, where it will be uneconomic to deliver gigabit broadband, the government will work with industry to ensure that these premises get improved broadband, where required. This year we will:
- launch an £8 million fund to provide capital grants to further promote new satellite connectivity to the most remote 35,000 premises
- set out plans to encourage the provision of fixed wireless access to other hard to reach areas
- The UK is already investing £1 billion in the Shared Rural Network to deliver 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the UK landmass, with the biggest coverage improvements in rural parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. This will also:
- deliver 4G coverage on a further 16,000 km of roads, with further indirect improvements over time, including a boost to ‘in-car’ coverage on around 45,000 km of roads
- improve geographic coverage to 79 per cent of Areas of Natural Beauty, benefitting millions of visitors every year
- the government has asked Ofcom to improve mobile coverage reporting, including in rural areas
- The government is establishing a new headline nationwide ambition for 5G in all populated areas by 2030, and this will include connectivity in areas classified as rural – backed by measures that help improve economics of rural rollout
- The government is establishing a new £40 million 5G Innovation Fund to establish 5G innovation regions. Driving innovation and adoption of advanced wireless technologies across rural industries will be a key focus of 5G Innovation Regions – supporting 5G-enabled innovation everywhere.
- The government is funding a new 5G adoption campaign that will help support adoption and investment in key sectors, including agri-tech.
- The government is working with Ofcom to improve access to spectrum for rural network providers, making it easier for networks to be deployed and for innovative use cases to be realised.
- The government will be appointing a Rural Connectivity Champion to report DSIT and Defra Secretaries of State to support adoption of advanced wireless connectivity and promote innovation in industries like agriculture.
- The government is continuing to remove barriers to deployment in rural areas, including changing planning regulations, making it quicker and easier to roll out digital infrastructure.
A new strategic vision for spectrum policy
The Spectrum Statement sets out a new strategic vision and principles for spectrum policy. Maximising its usage across the public and private sector is critical to delivering the mission to position the UK at the forefront of global scientific and technological advancement, supporting research, innovation and growth across the economy while protecting critical services such as defence and climate science.
Spectrum enables all wireless technology, from our mobile phones, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices to aircraft navigation and satellite applications, amongst many other uses. The devices and services that depend on spectrum now underpin almost every aspect of the nation’s economic and social lives.
Priority actions include working with Ofcom to enhance shared use of spectrum, reviewing our use of market mechanisms to support a strong investment environment and establishing a new framework to improve access to public sector spectrum.
This will mean better connectivity for people across the UK and better access to spectrum to support the new enterprise applications that will drive the economic growth, productivity and improved public services of tomorrow.
Flexi-permits to accelerate broadband rollout
The government is working with the local authorities and the telecoms industry to further trial the use of flexible permits (or ‘flexi-permit’) in a number of counties (such as in more rural areas).
Currently operators must apply for a permit to work in each individual street. Flexi-permits would allow telecoms companies to work in multiple streets under a single permit.
If successful, flexi permits could help the roll-out of broadband.
“Virgin Media O2 Business welcomes the introduction of the UK Government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy,” commented Jo Bertram, Managing Director, Business and Wholesale at Virgin Media O2 Business. “The world of business is becoming increasingly connected – whether you’re a global enterprise or a smaller business focused on conquering a local market, access to 5G and broadband networks are now vital for success.”
“5G has much to offer on an individual business level and to the UK economy, providing better conditions for organisations of every size and sector to adopt or scale their use. Therefore, it is promising to see the UK Government place greater emphasis on 5G, with the announced £40 million 5G innovation fund. We’re already seeing the difference 5G can make through a number of our partnerships, including with South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust to switch on the UK’s first 5G-connected hospital, and our first-of-its-kind project with Fotokite to support 5G-enhanced emergency services and public safety using drones.”
“Virgin Media O2 Business looks forward to working with the Government to help bring the Wireless Infrastructure Strategy to life. Next steps for the Strategy are for it to be implemented through a clear action plan and we are keen to play our part to ensure that practical steps are taken to meet the set ambitions and objectives,” she confirmed.
Tom Bennett, CTO at Freshwave, said: “We welcome the publication of the Government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, which acknowledges the crucial role neutral hosts play in delivering advanced wireless connectivity. Customer demands for services enabled by 5G technology means our industry needs far greater mobile site density, and the shared infrastructure offered by neutral hosts allows us to get this done effectively. This not only reduces installation costs for providers but helps minimise street clutter and street works in the community. This will only increase in importance as smart cities evolve.”
“It’s good to see mobile private networks featuring in the Government’s strategy, as they will provide huge benefits to both private and public sector organisations. They not only improve productivity and safety in environments like ports and factories, but they open up exciting new use cases in health and social care settings.”
“Digital connectivity will continue to play a central role in society and Freshwave are proud to collaborate with all our partners across the telecoms ecosystem to bring this connectivity to wherever it’s needed.”
James Williams, Head of Sector – Technology Media Telecoms at NCC Group said: “The government has set out its Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, setting out its plans for putting wireless connectivity at the heart of new and existing infrastructure. As it does so, it’s critical that it responds to new and evolving cyber security challenges facing the telecoms industry.”
“There will be a focus on making all networks secure and resilient – building on the world-leading Telecoms Security Act 2021. It’s particularly welcome that the government plans to consult on plans to support the secure development of private networks, something NCC Group has long advocated for.”
“In another welcome step forward, the UK government is working with local authorities to ensure the UK’s smart cities are built to be resilient. With this new Strategy, we should see a more holistic, cross-sectoral and forward-looking approach to security and resilience in the near future.”