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United Kingdom 5G

Back in 2016, the UK government announced its intention to invest in a nationally coordinated program of 5G testbed facilities and trials, as part of over $1.25BN (£1BN) of funding to boost the UK’s digital infrastructure. Projects funded includes urban and rural connected communities, IOT, augmented and virtual reality, transport infrastructure, enhanced manufacturing, 5G security, and many more. The UK government significant funding to the program is being matched by private companies and network operators. 

There are 4 UK’s core networks: EE, O2, Three and Vodafone. EE became the first mobile operator to launch 5G in the UK in May, 2019. Since then Vodafone, O2 and Three launched their own 5G services, along with some MVNOs (Mobile Virtual Network Operators – they don’t own their own physical network and instead use one of the UK’s core networks to provide their service. Therefore, they are reliant on the core networks allowing them to provide 5G to their customers). Currently, EE offers 5G in 71 UK towns and cities, Three in 66, Vodafone in 41, and O2 in 21. 5G coverage should roll out to at least a further 18 major towns and cities during 2020. 

With regard to frequencies, the UK’s mobile operators will repurpose some of their existing spectrum for 5G use, as they did in the past with 4G. But given the speed and capacity requirements of 5G, they also need more spectrum than they had. The first auction of 5G spectrum concluded in April 2018 when Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator) sold 150MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum previously used by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). All four operators (EE, O2, Three and Vodafone) secured spectrum. The 3.4GHz spectrum will be used for – and central to – rolling out 5G networks. 

Ofcom also auctioned off 40MHz of 2.3GHz spectrum (also recovered from the MoD) for immediate use to provide additional capacity for 4G networks, which can also be used for 5G in the future. O2 won all the available 2.3GHz spectrum. 

Ofcom is also looking at making 2.25GHz of spectrum between the 24.25GHz and 26.5GHz frequencies available, to “support 5G indoor applications.” Further auctions will likely take place soon to make more spectrum available, and work is ongoing to identify more frequency bands that can be utilized for 5G. An auction for the 3.6GHz – 3.8GHz and 700MHz bands is currently set to take place in mid-2020. 

However, in April 2020, Europe’s biggest telco, Vodafone, has written to the UK government requesting it to cancel the forthcoming 5G spectrum auctions and instead release the spectrum bands now and divide them between operators to cope with the additional demand for capacity on mobile networks during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

A contentious side of the UK 5G roll out is Huawei’s involvement. In January 2020, the UK government has decided to let Huawei and other ‘high risk vendors’ make up a maximum of 35% of 5G infrastructure in non-sensitive parts of the network, with no involvement in the sensitive areas. According to UK government this should keep UK networks safe while allowing them to benefit from Huawei’s tech. 

But critics argue it is a security risk to allow the Chinese company to play any role at all because of fears it could be used by Beijing to spy on or even sabotage communications. In early March 2020, 38 Conservatives MPs (Members of Parliament) rebelled on the issue, a larger number than expected. That points to a potential upset when the Telecoms Infrastructure Bill comes before Parliament, which is planned to happen later in the year.  

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