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Will COVID-19 slow the deployment of 5G?

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Posted on 15/11/2020 by Diane Scally

​In recent weeks, there have been announcements of significant  support into 5G infrastructure and technology by government and industry

5G has been heralded as integral to enabling digital transformation and promoting innovation across industries. Experts have suggested that this approach may be key to recovering from the current COVID-19 induced recession. However, 5G comes with its own set of challenges, many of which have been further exacerbated by COVID-19.

 

What is 5G?

First, let’s recap the promises of 5G. The most obvious benefits are the vastly increased speeds, capabilities and reduced latencies. In the real world, predicted download speeds could be up to 10 20 times fasterwith 5G (compared to 4G). This means high-definition videos could be downloaded in seconds, not minutes.

Secondly, 5G has been designed to overcome the problem of connection density (too many devices connected to one network). This makes 5G a valuable long-term infrastructure investment
because it is future-proof against surging demand.

5G also allows for the possibility of ‘network slicing’. This means different services (e.g. mobile broadband, transport and low-powered devices such as security cameras and thermostats) will sit on separate ‘slices’ of the network. These slices are then tailored to best facilitate those services. Therefore, resources can be allocated in a flexible and efficient manner.

 

What are the challenges?

Firstly, there have been short-term challenges in terms of installing the new radio towers required for 5G. Lockdown has delayed plans by preventing any physical work taking place and by interrupting supply chains. However, on the other side of this, demand for 5G has surged due to remote working. Given that remote working is thought to be a long-term trend (and hopefully lockdown isn’t!), some experts have argued plans for 5G roll-out may even accelerate, but at the least are likely to continue at a steady pace.

COVID-19 has also exacerbated security and political concerns over 5G. Back in January 2020, the UK’s 5G deployment strategy was highly dependent on the Chinese technology company, Huawei. This raised concern over security issues, with the U.S describing any 5G deal with the company as “a grave threat to national security.”Opinions vary on the extent to which Huawei was a genuine cybersecurity concern or a political one. However, COVID-19 has certainly not helped tension between China and the West. Regardless, the U.K reversed their decision, banning Huawei from significant involvement. This may go some way in reassuring 5G sceptics, but again has caused practical problems as operators must strip billions of pounds of Huawei equipment from their networks by 2027. Increased costs and competition over 5G deployment contracts may lead to further delays.

Concerns over 5G security are not solely due to Huawei. The AT&T Cybersecurity Insights Report identified that 76% of questioned security professionals believe completely new threats will emerge from 5G. While digital transformation has become a priority during COVID-19, it’s also been a time where organisations are understaffed and lacking in funds. Dampened enthusiasm for 5G from both organisations and consumers could also affect deployment.

However, despite the multitude of challenges, there has been no shortage of support for 5G. For example, a new report from Vodafone estimated that 5G could add up to £154 billion to the national economy in the next ten years. This will support job creation, businesses and public services, potentially playing a vital role in economic recovery. In addition, the U.K government recently announced a four-year milestone — clearing the 700 MHz spectrum band — meaning that new data capacity is released for 5G coverage. This comes ahead of the planned January 2021 Ofcom Auction, where mobile operators will submit bids for access to the spectrum.

Overall, 5G deployment seems to be equally delayed and accelerated by COVID-19. Most importantly, high-profile support remains strong — this may be the driving force behind continued deployment.