Smarter, faster, stronger: how 5G can supercharge the UK economy


The UK was one of the first countries in the world to embrace 5G. In fact, every operator has now launched a 5G service, the first step towards a revolution in how we live and work. The technology could also drive the UK’s economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and set it up for success in a post-Brexit world. But recently this positive future has been overshadowed by political wrangling over the UK’s 5G infrastructure.

Thankfully, this long period of uncertainty is now drawing to a close. But the unfortunate headlines and COVID-related delays to 5G rollouts have the potential to undermine the UK’s status as an early adopter of the technology. It’s therefore essential that discussion of 5G now shifts back to the countless ways it will benefit UK businesses, otherwise, as with 4G, the country could be left facing another missed opportunity.

“The UK’s mobile network ability currently ranks 18th in Europe based on coverage, availability and speed of downloads,” says Arun Bansal, senior vice president and head of market area, Europe and Latin America, at Ericsson, which has 109 global commercial 5G agreements, including 61 live networks.

Taking the lead

This lacklustre performance has hindered the UK’s ability to develop the kind of multi-billion-dollar unicorns that Scandinavia, the United States and China excel in producing, such as Spotify, Klarna, Netflix, Airbnb, Alibaba and WeChat. Thanks to strong government support and a leading supplier ecosystem, about 90 per cent of the South Korean population is also now covered for 5G take-up, according to a recent study by Omdia. Yet 4G trials have only just begun on the London Underground.

Research carried out by ABI and Ericsson also found that the UK is set to spend less than Germany on enabling cellular-connected Industry 4.0 warehouse solutions between 2021 and 2025, even though the UK can leverage more economies of scale than German retail distributors. With the right Industry 4.0 solutions in place, a UK-based warehouse operator would realise operational cost savings of $220.9 million over this period. However, the same warehouse operator would forgo an average of $43.3 million annually in terms of lost opportunity per non-upgraded warehouse.

A rapid shift to 5G would ensure such opportunities aren’t lost and help to close the technological gap between the UK and other nations. In fact, with the right investment, the UK could even surpass some of the early adopters of 4G. “There’s a lot of innovation that can happen once that infrastructure is there,” says Bansal. “The UK has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speed up 5G adoption and create an open platform for the next generation of innovative companies.”

The UK has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to speed up 5G adoption and create an open platform for the next generation of innovative companies

A recent study commissioned by Vodafone found that 5G could provide a £38-billion boost to the UK economy over the next  five years. And there’s no reason why the UK’s infrastructure can’t be upgraded within this timeframe either. Globally, Ericsson has replaced old equipment with 5G capable equipment at more than 100,000 sites in the last two years, more than twice the total number of sites in the UK.

Driving innovation

Once the right infrastructure is in place, it will create a platform for innovation that will transform everything from healthcare to manufacturing. For example, 5G’s ability to handle large volumes of data from countless devices with minimal latency will enable industrial-scale  internet of things (IoT) networks of sensors in factories, something Ericsson is exploring through its work with BT and the Worcestershire 5G Testbed on the UK’s first live 5G factory installation.

Wearable devices, IoT, data analytics and mobile edge computing, all underpinned by high-speed, low-latency 5G networks, will provide an unprecedented level of insight into processes and equipment, and make intelligent, agile, automated manufacturing a reality. And there’s no reason the UK can’t benefit from this manufacturing revolution, providing it acts quickly to attract innovative firms, says Bansal.

“Twenty years ago, a lot of manufacturing moved out of Europe to Vietnam and India and other countries due to cost reasons,” he explains. “Back then, manufacturing was labour intensive. But in the 21st century, manufacturing won’t be labour intensive; it will be technologically intensive, using robots and artificial intelligence and machine-learning.”

Ports and logistics, other important elements of the UK economy, could also benefit massively from 5G. Ericsson recently lent its connectivity expertise to a smart port initiative in Livorno, Italy, which aims to create a digitally connected harbour. The project showed how sensors, cameras and devices underpinned by 5G technology can deliver an estimated €2.5 million in savings a year and a 25 per cent improvement in productivity, not to mention a CO2 equivalent saving of 8.2 per cent.

Benefiting every industry

In cities, 5G will connect every camera, dustbin and traffic light, thereby improving everything from bin collections to traffic flow. “5G provides the technical feasibility for you to have millions of connected devices per base station,” says Bansal.

Network slicing will further allow operators to create multiple virtualised networks that run on the same physical infrastructure, which can be configured to support the specific requirements of different sectors, services and use-cases. For example, automated cars require extreme reliability for safety purposes, something a dedicated 5G network slice can provide.

Healthcare is another area that 5G will truly revolutionise. For instance, Ericsson recently worked on a project with BT and the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust that demonstrated a remote diagnostic procedure using a 5G-connected ambulance. It connects practitioners in the field with consultants or surgeons in real time, which allows them to review the patient before they arrive at the hospital and prepare equipment and surgical rooms, saving valuable time.

Other critical sectors of the UK economy, such as agriculture, transport and education, could also be transformed by the right 5G investment. In fact, as Bansal says: “The bottom line is that, to be honest, every single industry will benefit from 5G.”

However, not every country will, at least not to the same degree. As the shift to 4G proved, those nations that quickly adopt the new standard will reap the biggest benefits. It’s the kind of game-changing opportunity that could help the UK recover economically from COVID-19, establish itself as a major independent global economy, and support the kind of innovative companies that will transform how we live and work in the years to come. So let’s hope we seize it.

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