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The U.K. government announced on April 11 new investments under its new Wireless Infrastructure Strategy to boost digital connectivity. With a funding of £40 million (about $50 million USD), the plan aims to reach 100% of standalone 5G coverage for all populated areas by 2030. An additional £8 million will be invested to promote satellite connectivity to the most remote homes and businesses.

We delve into the possible impact of this 5G investment, including possible socioeconomic benefits, financial and deployment challenges, and how this may set the foundations for 6G.

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The socioeconomic benefits of 5G

A study by PWC reveals that 5G could unlock up to £43 billion for the U.K.’s GDP by 2030. 5G will directly impact healthcare, consumers and media, manufacturing, agriculture and financial services.

Currently, almost 77% of the population in the U.K. has access to 5G, according to Digital Information World, but these networks are non-standalone 5G. To drive new technologies like agritech, autonomous vehicles, AI and industrial robotics, reliable standalone 5G connectivity is essential.

Standalone 5G can unlock innovation potential and improve company performance, enhance remote workers’ connectivity, impact public services and healthcare. In addition, the U.K. government says that SA 5G will reduce travel times and improve healthcare, while positively impacting the environment and enhancing quality of life.

“SA 5G uses an advanced 5G-based mobile core and, as a result, will deliver faster connectivity speeds and lower latency performance. It will pave the way for initiatives like smart city applications, massive Internet of Things and an enhanced consumer mobility experience,” said Vishal Mathur, global head of engagement for the Telecom Infra Project.

Deployment costs of 5G

One of the major challenges of deploying 5G SA is the cost of deployment. Some mobile industry leaders question whether the funds invested by the U.K. government are sufficient to meet the goals.

Hamish MacLeod, the Director of Mobile UK — the trade association for national mobile operators including EE, Virgin Media O2, Three and Vodafone — said during a recent keynote speech at the Westminster eForum policy conference that data requirements increase by 40% every year. He added that 5G connections are essential to meet the demand.

It’s reported MacLeod also stated that, while investments in mobile infrastructure benefit everyone, the government funding falls short. He said that approximately £23-25 billion is needed to meet the government’s goals, highlighting a recent report from the Digital Connectivity Forum.

Mathur agreed and added: “The level of funding is something that is likely to be questioned. £40 million is a relatively small fund to support these broad ambitions. The U.S. government, in comparison, is investing up to $9 billion to deliver and improve 5G-based connectivity in suburban and rural communities. Setting positive targets for the nation is a step forward, but the government must continue to invest if it wants the U.K. to build a prosperous digital future for all.”

From 5G non-standalone to 5G standalone

A major technical challenge is the difference between non-standalone and standalone 5G networks. To build SA 5G, the industry needs to shift away from traditional networks, which are hardware-dependent architectures.

Most mobile operators in the U.K. currently run their commercial 5G networks in non-standalone mode; the only mobile provider that has successfully deployed SA 5G networks in the U.K. is Vodafone.

While the benefits of SA 5G networks are significant — network speed, latency and roll-out improvement — introducing them presents more technical challenges.

“SA 5G networks are a completely cloud-native core that is virtualized and designed to be disaggregated across the network,” Mathur explained. “Operator networks have always been very hardware-centric, so moving to a virtualized and software-based network is a large undertaking requiring operators to either scale out their own cloud resources or leverage those of the hyperscalers.”

Operators will also need to ensure that new SA 5G networks comply with the necessary technical standards, interoperability and security requirements; this adds complexity to the deployment. However, this transformation will open up a wide range of opportunities for new companies that can provide digital network services, expanding the network supply chain.

The opportunities of network virtualization

For the U.K. government 5G plan to be successful, the move to SA 5G must be combined with the ambition to make the entire network cloud native. “Today, operators across the globe are already seeing huge benefits in virtualizing, opening and disaggregating these different layers of the network, and they must continue on this path if they want to reap the full benefits of SA 5G by 2030,” Mathur said.

The cloudification of the network must extend from the core to the optical and transport layers and all the way out to the RAN. Deploying cloud-based SA 5G networks inevitably opens market opportunities.

As networks transition toward cloud-native, 5G architecture must incorporate virtual components such as the 5G SA core to streamline network deployment. By automating aspects of network management, virtual components can make networks more cost-effective, bandwidth efficient and energy efficient.

Virtualization is also impacting the radio network — the most hardware-centric part of the network through virtual RAN and Open RAN. By virtualizing and disaggregating the radio network, operators can increase vendor diversity, lower costs for deployment and introduce innovations faster.

“To meet the requirements for scale, flexibility and reliability, virtual components will be crucial to the U.K.’s 5G network plans,” Mathur added.

SEE: Open RAN is gaining momentum.

Setting the foundations for 6G

The virtualization of SA 5G networks will not only improve connectivity and drive benefits but also set the foundations for 6G. The next generation of mobile communication systems are expected to be built using cloud-native architecture. Its new supply chain will be driven by IT and software companies.

“The telecoms industry is already moving in this direction with the advent of OpenRAN and the introduction of SA 5G, which are making networks more software-centric, automated and vendor-diverse,” Mathur said.

SEE: Do you know the differences between 5G and 6G?

The U.K. government plan can be viewed as a natural evolution towards 6G. Simultaneously, the U.K. is already investing in 6G research and development under the new Wireless Infrastructure Strategy. Exploring new technologies such as quantum computing and AI is necessary for 6G computing demands. 6G networks will have to resolve complex operations instantly to reduce latency; these computations include finding the optimal path for data transfers and increasing reliability and signal strength.

Most regions in the world have ambitious targets to accelerate the deployment of 5G and 6G. Countries in Asia, China, South Korea, the EU and India are all investing heavily in the technology, and their success, as Nikkei Asia reports, sometimes exceeds that of networks in the U.K. and the U.S.

SA 5G is a profound transformation and, while the challenge of building, testing, deploying and maintaining these new networks is monumental, the benefits considerably outweigh the costs.

However, the benefits of universal 5G coverage plans cannot be reaped when investments are insufficient. Not only can SA 5G drive economic, environmental and social impacts, but they are increasingly necessary for innovation and technology that evolves rapidly. The financial, technical and talent gaps in the sector represent a unique opportunity for collaboration between the public and private sectors, as well as existing and new partners.

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