Why we must bridge the gap between the ‘connectivity rich and connectivity poor’

According to recent research, the rest of the UK is lagging behind London when it comes to 4G coverage. As it stands, a fast network doesn't always necessarily mean an accessible one, and a 4G signal still appears difficult to come by for mobile users across the country. 

The State of the Mobile Network report was based on an assessment of 500 million measurements on the networks of Three, EE, O2 and Vodafone on both a national and regional level. The research found that, while mobile users in London can access 4G nearly 70 per cent of the time, there are significant disparities across the rest of the UK. Indeed, mobile users in Wales can only connect to 4G services on 35 per cent of occasions. 

Clearly, mobile devices play a key role in everybody's lives, whether for work or play, and consumers expect their smartphones and tablets to work flawlessly regardless of where they are or what apps, sites and services they're trying to access. In fact, 80 per cent of London millennials who have a smartphone even admitted they could not go a day without it.

Consumers in the UK have even stated they would be willing to pay almost one and a half billion pounds extra per year in telecoms industry revenue for improved services.

In a poll of 2,000 UK adults conducted by KPMG, consumers would pay £900 million per year for better customer service and fewer dropped calls, while they would pay another £550 million per year for improved reliability of broadband. This could boost telco’s average revenue per user by 10 per cent, according to the research.

These figures underline the clear consumer demand that exists today for first-class wireless connectivity across the UK, from a growing number of individuals that won’t accept less from their providers.  

Why 4G still isn’t an ever-present across the UK

As we have already discussed, there are clear disparities across the country when it comes to access to 4G services. And there are still significant barriers in place that have prevented the necessary growth in such important services. Learning from previous lessons, one of the greatest barriers to the rollout and adoption of 4G services was the ability of governments to quickly free up spectrum in high bands needed to transport 4G into the hands of consumers. 

If the government is just as slow to auction spectrum when establishing future networks such as 5G, we may run into similar problems in which – several years down the line – there are significant disadvantages to certain areas of the country.

This will also have a knock-on effect to network operators seeking to grow and invest further funds into new services. Of course, the provision of reliable and consistent mobile coverage ensures network operators a lucrative revenue stream. This then enables them to continue to invest in the appropriate infrastructure and technology to help citizens enjoy the ubiquitous mobile coverage they desire.

Government 5G pledges

In the most recent Autumn Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made further commitments regarding public spending on the development of a 5G network here in the UK. Indeed, the government has claimed it will invest over £1 billion by 2020/21 targeted at supporting the market to roll out full-fibre connections and future 5G communications, including £740 million through the new National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF). This commitment aims to bring faster and more reliable broadband for homes and businesses across the UK, boost the next generation of mobile connectivity and ‘keep the UK in the forefront of the development of the Internet of Things’.

While we champion any pledges to improve access to connectivity infrastructure, the secret to achieving this will be to ensure the background infrastructure (the fibre highway) is in place prior to this 2020 goal. This should include using techniques such as fibre cabling directly to the outdoor antennas, combining fibre with power to the huge number of new ‘small cells” that will be required and leveraging existing fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) construction to add in extra 5G connection points along the way.

But before we talk about developing a first-class 5G network tomorrow, there is clearly still much more work to be done to build 4G and fibre networks to provide a boost to communities today. 

The importance of fibre  

When considering how we can close the connectivity gap that exists across the UK, we cannot simply think in terms of wireless or fibre-optic broadband. They must both work together hand-in-hand. 

FTTH technology is widely considered to be the fastest and most reliable way to access the internet, offering the potential to deliver a wide range of services and applications that will improve a business’s efficiency and productivity, as well as our overall home lives. 

Ultrafast fibre networks are currently being rolled out to our customers across the country, with the government, through OpenReach, committed to delivering superfast broadband to 95 per cent of premises by 2017. The goal is, of course, for consumers and businesses across the whole of the UK, including rural communities, to soon be able to compete on a level playing field with larger businesses in major UK cities. For us, this couldn’t come soon enough. 

Connectivity can be the difference

To paraphrase Bill Shankley, ‘Some people believe connectivity is a matter of life and death; I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’ Access to superfast connectivity - from 4G to 5G and fibre broadband - is becoming increasingly significant in our everyday lives, and is an enabler that cannot be underestimated. 

Connectivity could ultimately be the difference between success and failure, particularly for small-to-medium businesses, enabling them to reach a global audience. It is critical that everyone across the country has the same access to the opportunities enabled by connectivity. It’s no longer an acceptable excuse that people in rural areas don’t get access because they’re ‘hard to reach’. Ensuring everyone is ‘connectivity rich’ requires telecoms providers to collaborate with the government and wider industry to get the right infrastructure in place for everyone. And making this happen should be a priority now, with the UK’s position as a digital leader at stake. 

Phil Sorsky, Global Head of Service Providers, CommScope
Image Credit: Sdecoret / Shutterstock