As EE and Vodafone are rolling out Britain’s first 5G networks. We look into if startups and SMEs should really be excited about the new mobile network
5G is the future. The faster and increased connectivity of the fifth generation of mobile networks is promising to enable everything from autonomous vehicles and smart cities to faster online gaming and improve the services associated with the internet of things (IoT). Now, after years in the making, 5G is starting to roll out across the UK. The question is if entrepreneurs should be excited about it?
To answer that, one must delve into what 5G actually is. The last mobile network update, 4G, was introduced back in 2012. One doesn’t have to be aware of Moore’s Law, the idea that the number of transistors that can be squeezed into a microchip doubles every two years, to recognise that the speed at which technology is evolving is seemingly getting faster by the day. As smartphones, laptops, smart watches and an ever-growing range of connected devices become more powerful, it’s easy to see why the mobile network of 2012 is due for an upgrade.
And that’s where 5G comes in. “It uses much smaller cells than 4G and has much higher bandwidth,” explains David Friend, CEO and co-founder of Wasabi Technologies, the cloud storage company. “Because the cells are smaller, it’s possible to support a much larger number of devices within the same geographic area. 4G supports about 4,000 simultaneous devices per square kilometre, whereas 5G can support one million.” In other words, things are going to speed up considerably for a lot of people.
UK startup founders and the general public won’t have to wait too long to get this increased connectivity. EE became the first 5G UK mobile operator when it launched its commercial 5G network on Thursday May 30. But it won’t be alone for long as Vodafone will switch on its own 5G network on Wednesday July 3 2019 in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool. Both Three and O2 are also set to unveil their own networks in 2019. Initially, 5G will only be available in some major cities but some estimates project the entire UK to have access to the next generation of connectivity by 2022.
And there’s reasons beyond the increased internet speed that should make both business owners and regular Joes on the street excited. “[An] end to Netflix buffering on the bus is only part of the story,” reveals Derek McManus, COO at O2. “The arrival of 5G will bring low-power, low-cost sensors and modules installed in everyday objects and city infrastructure to enable new services where other solutions were previously unfeasible or too expensive.” O2 has estimated that this will translate to Britain annually saving £6bn in productivity expenses. No wonder the rollout of 5G has been priority in the UK government’s digital strategy.
The improved connectivity also means the workplace of the future may differ dramatically from the one of today. While several businesses are already offering flexible working, the number is set to increase with the implementation of 5G. “Fixed line broadband speeds are better whilst on the move, which allows people to work from anywhere,” argues Rob Baillie, mobile expert at www.comparemymobile.com, the mobile comparison site. “An office isn’t necessary as the ability to be able to share large documents at speed on a train or join video conferences in the park will likely increase the use of shared offices spaces, meaning startups won’t need to commit to expensive, long term leases in their infancy.”
The new mobile network will also open up for many of the different services tech bros have been talking about for years. “[The] launch of 5G in the UK is a milestone moment in digital transformation and it’s a precursor to the futuristic technologies that startups are developing,” states Iain Shearman, managing director at KCOM, the communications services company.
And Scott Petty, CTO at Vodafone UK, agrees: “5G will be the platform for big advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence, IoT, robotics, connected cities and self-driving cars. 5G has the potential to make seemingly far-fetched scenarios a reality – like paramedics who are in constant, real-time, video link conference with the emergency room.”
However, while there are clear benefits with 5G, the new mobile network also comes with some drawbacks. “For businesses, the coming of 5G could be an expensive headache,” Harry Chima, UK head of CIO advisory at Infosys Consulting, the technology and innovation consultancy. “From the service providers who must invest hundreds of millions in upgrading their networks before they can earn any revenue from new superfast services to the CIO who is tasked with developing a corporate 5G strategy. This makes life very hard for the CIO, who must somehow put together a 5G action plan without truly knowing what problems they need to overcome, what new capabilities they want to provision and how 5G will affect wider corporate strategy. ”
One only has to look at the first 5G phone deals to see how switching over to the next generation can hurt a company’s bottomline. While EE’s cheapest 4G deal is at £19 per month, at the launch its 5G plans started with a monthly fee of £32. “What’s more, due to the limited rollout, users with 5G contracts will still find themselves on the slower 4G network a lot of the time, so they’ll effectively be paying more money for the same service when travelling outside of the six cities,” argues Baillie.
Yet, despite the rollout of 5G may end up being an expensive ordeal for many companies, Britons having faster and better connectivity is surely something that will benefit entrepreneurs in the long run.