ARTICLE: Racontuer/ The Times – Pandemics and politics cloud 5G outlook

Conspiracy theories, geopolitical tensions and the mass rollout of home working have thrust the future of 5G deployment into the spotlight

When telecommunication providers said fifth-generation networking, or 5G infrastructure, would be game-changing, causing the spread of a deadly virus wasn’t what they meant.

But still, on social media such crackpot conspiracy theories have spread like wildfire. While in the physical world, arson attacks have seen phone masts go up in flames.

As operators and the government sought to put out the blaze of misinformation, smouldering geopolitical tensions over which technology provider should or should not be involved in building UK 5G infrastructure have threatened to ignite.

Most certainly, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the development of fifth-generation networking in some unexpected ways. But politics and fake news aside, industry analysts and technology providers are busy considering how behaviour changes catalysed by COVID-19, such as increased remote working, will impact the future of the network upgrade.

New demand drivers

Some have suggested a shift to home working could see UK telcos refocus investment plans away from 5G infrastructure to concentrate on fixed broadband such as fibre, the UK deadline for which is 2025.

While it makes sense intuitively to conclude that mobile networking use is less relevant when the majority of the population are at home, says Björn Odenhammar, network chief technology officer for Ericsson UK and Ireland, the company’s data analysis shows demand has remained stable during lockdown, but has changed location.

“Instead of heavily congested sites in and around central London or similar business hubs, demand has moved to suburban areas,” says Odenhammar.

“In some places, voice calls have increased by 50 per cent and, with much more activity on wifi, it has experienced issues, resulting in people using the LTE [long-term evolution] network instead,” he adds.

Dr Hamid Falaki, consultant to the Smart Internet Lab at the University of Bristol, says the momentum of the 5G rollout has actually increased network capacity behind the system, helping it deal with the extra residential demand. “If the UK had not prepared for 5G, we wouldn’t have the capacity to deliver, for example, all the extra Zoom calls,” says Falaki.

Going forward, a mix of the two solutions, fibre and mobile networking, will be needed, he says, especially as many people in mostly rural areas do not have adequate broadband coverage.


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