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Rolling out 5G in the UK

By 1 July 2020July 8th, 2020Views

David Crawford, Managing Director at Cellnex UK, looks at the opportunities of this exciting new era of ultra-fast connectivity, and explores the key considerations for deploying 5G at scale.


Having played a significant part in the roll-out of 4G, Cellnex is once again at the heart of change; working with customers and partners to accelerate 5G adoption across the UK. While this is a major task, we are perfectly placed to deliver. We are leveraging our nationwide portfolio of shared sites, repeatable processes and proven deployment capabilities to help Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) deliver this transformational technology cost efficiently and at pace.

With all four UK Mobile Network Operators already operating 5G networks, a lightning fast mobile future is very much here. Behind the scenes, both in Cellnex and across the wider telecoms sector, work has been underway for some time to ensure this step up from 4G happens as smoothly and quickly as possible.

Each step between the first generation of mobile connectivity and where we are today has brought its own significant changes. Since the basic analogue voice services of the 1980s, we’ve seen huge and continuous improvements in coverage and capacity, the introduction of new digital generations, and of course, the advent, rise and ubiquitous adoption of the mobile internet.

Even with all this progress in mind, the revolution (and the speeds) we expect from 5G is unprecedented. To put it into context, assuming a 5G download speed of 10Gbps, it would take less than 10 seconds to download an entire HD film[1].

While ‘real world’ speeds may not get this high for some time, our experience working with Samsung to deliver the first ever ‘5G’ Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) trial in London back in 2017 certainly highlighted the technology’s massive potential.

Here, we demonstrated data speeds in excess of 1Gbps, along with latency levels of sub 5ms. It was clear back then (as it is today) that the technology will deliver huge improvements in connectivity and create significant opportunities for businesses and consumers.

But realising 5G’s potential is a considerable task and will require significant improvements to infrastructure, technology and even bureaucracy. Here we look at the key considerations for success.


More infrastructure

With speeds and data consumption both poised to rise dramatically, we are having to expand and update our infrastructure to cope for the future. Flexibility will be key too. Rather than rely only on large roadside towers, colossal demand across busy cities and suburban areas require the installation of thousands of outdoor Small Cells – tiny mobile units mounted to lamp posts and other street furniture. Deploying these at street level, as Cellnex has done hundreds of times in London, requires investment and collaboration throughout the sector, involving ourselves, asset owners and Mobile Network Operators (MNOs).

Smarter antennas

The full transition to 5G is about more than just an increase in asset numbers – it is important to look at how our infrastructure operates and how it supports this fast maturing technology. We have worked (and continue to do so) behind the scenes to explore new ways to provide the reliable, superfast connectivity MNO customers expect.

As we move beyond ‘Standard MIMO’ (Multiple-Input/Multiple Output), deployment of ‘Massive MIMO’ – where tens or even hundreds of antennas and terminals are used to achieve even greater efficiency and throughput – will be a key enabler of an enhanced data experience.

This is a big consideration in the next stage of 5G network evolution and deployment, and has major consequences for passive infrastructure such as existing tower and rooftop locations. Here, the increased size and weight of the radio equipment – and more particularly wind loading – has significant implications for tower design. Certainly, some existing host structures have had to be strengthened, while others replaced.

New services

With such seismic change expected from 5G, providers will need to reassess how they manage, sell and deliver their services. Beam steering and network slicing (allowing MNOs to dedicate capacity to specific services) offers an opportunity to deliver very different features to user groups with unique needs, all via common infrastructure.

These new services range from ‘smart’ home and city options – from the connected fridge that tells you when you’re out of milk, through to rather more useful smart meters for reducing household water or energy use. Enhanced broadband speeds will drive the continued evolution of high-bandwidth services like 4K mobile TV, and compliment fixed line connections into homes and businesses. And, with 5G enabling ultra-reliable, low latency communications, vehicle connectivity and a range of complex telehealth services will be possible.

All these services, and more, offer a huge range of opportunities for new entrants and established players to disrupt markets, create new models and drive competitive advantage. Today, we are just scratching the surface of what will be possible tomorrow.

5G service delivery

More Spectrum

Available radio spectrum is another major consideration and is a scarce resource. Ofcom has worked with its continental counterparts to harmonise three bands to enable 5G in Europe: 700 MHz, 3.4-3.8 GHz, and 24.25-27.5 GHz. While smart antenna technology and other 5G characteristics features allow for a much more efficient use of spectrum, the overall experience is limited by the laws of physics; our MNO customers will need more if they’re to address sky high user expectations and rapidly growing demand over the next decade.

Too much red tape?

Our sector has always been heavily regulated, but reform here continues to be greatly outpaced by advances in technology and changing business and customer requirements.

The Electronic Communications Code is a good example. First introduced in 1984, and updated to become the ‘new’ Code in 2017, this provides a framework against which operators can reach agreement with landowners to access sites and install and maintain equipment. It also provides a dispute resolution mechanism to support the siting of new infrastructure where parties are unable to come to a negotiated agreement.

The 2017 reforms (which took some six years to introduce) were intended to simplify and reduce the cost of the process. In practice, however, we have observed a level of conflict with landlords and agents, preventing or delaying operators from deploying new sites. Further reform here, and of planning legislation in different parts of the UK, must proceed at pace. Certainly, both government and regulators have key roles to play in enabling the continued successful deployment of 5G.

Opportunities at scale

While we are at the beginning of an exciting era of ultra-fast mobile connectivity, the business and consumer benefits of 5G will only be truly realised through at-scale deployment and nationwide coverage. But, as we’ve seen, there is unprecedented technical and commercial complexity.

As an established leader in 5G, Cellnex is actively working with industry, government and regulators to break down barriers – and continuing to partner with MNOs to leverage our agile processes and ready-to-use nationwide infrastructure to drive down costs and simplify deployment…to accelerate 5G adoption at scale.