Could super-fast broadband for all be the key to helping the economy bounce back, if and whenstarts to subside?
A report from analysts from Assembly Research suggests that delivering gigabit connectivity to every corner of the UK could add over £50 billion ($62 billion) to the country's economy – assuming that this "Gigabit Britain" could be achieved, as previously promised by the government, in the next five years.
On the other hand, missing the 2025 deadline could come at a cost: the report found that even a 12-month delay could lead to the UK missing out on £9.7 billion ($12 billion) of productivity benefits.
SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)
With the IMF currently predicting that the coronavirus crisis will cause the world's worst recession since the Great Depression, the billions promised by faster broadband speeds have never seemed more tempting. Assembly's report, in fact, highlights that achieving the 2025 connectivity target will underpin the economic bounce-back that the UK will "desperately need" in the months and years ahead.
Gigabit connectivity offers a speed of one gigabit (1 Gb) per second or more, and is typically made possible through full-fibre technology, which requires building complex new networks of underground fibre cables that connect to each individual household. More recent deployments of 5G, however, also provide a way to achieve similar levels of performance through mobile networks.
Boris Johnson's administration pledged last summer that the government would bring gigabit connectivity to the whole of the UK by 2025. Faster 5G networks, together with full-fibre broadband, are expected to generate growth in a number of fields, ranging from e-learning to media and entertainment, through healthcare and smart mobility. In particular, 5G is expected to provide one solution to the "final third" problem – the 20% of the country's population that are harder to reach because they are located in remote areas.
But legislation in the UK is effectively one step behind gigabit connectivity: there needs to be more support for the switch from copper to fibre through financial incentives for businesses; planning applications for 5G mobile masts need to be simplified; and its still too hard to get permission from landowners to install equipment. The research reports, for example, that it currently takes up to 86 days for local planning authorities to agree to 5G sites upgrades. And that's when authorities don't refuse to go through with the change.
"Government policy still seems to be slow and disjointed," argued Assembly Research principal analyst Matt Howett, "and it is moving too slowly. Everyone supports the idea, but now government needs to do those things that won't cost billions more in financing, but will remove barriers for the commercial sector to deploy."
Despite all of the changes that are yet to be made, Howett is optimistic that with appropriate legislation, the UK could be fully covered by 1Gb speeds by 2025. This is partly down to wording: from the original promise of "full fibre", the government has now rephrased the commitment to "gigabit connectivity", which includes alternative technologies such as 5G.
The report was sponsored by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which has has made it clear that it is determined to be part of the UK's upgraded connectivity equation.
"Looking to the other side of the pandemic, we have to assess how we can help the global recovery. Investing into next-generation networks will be one of the key factors to drive back economic growth in the UK," said Huawei's vice president Victor Zhang.
"If we can help to make sure that this disruption is reached with only a short interruption on British economic progress, then doing so is not a choice, it is essential," he added. "Huawei is here and ready to play its part where we can."
That may not be as easy as it once was.
Back in January, the UK government decided that it would allow Huawei to provide some equipment for the country's 5G networks, although the sensitive 'core' parts of 5G networks remained off-limits to the Chinese company. The UK government also restricted Huawei to providing 35% of the equipment for the non-sensitive parts of networks. Huawei's critics, particularly in the US government, have argued that using the company's equipment in 5G networks could leave countries at risk of being spied on by the Chinese state: Huawei has consistently denied that this could happen.
But January was a long time ago: earlier this month, the first secretary of state Dominic Raab said at the daily coronavirus press conference that the UK and China won't have "business as usual" once the crisis has passed, and some Conservative MPs have been reported to be calling the government to adopt a harder line towards Beijing.
Huawei's Zhang has already warned the UK that U-turning on its decision to let the Chinese firm provide some of the country's 5G infrastructure would be a bad idea. "Disrupting our involvement in the 5G rollout would do Britain a disservice," Zhang has previously said. "When we emerge from this crisis, we look forward to continuing to play our role as a key partner in improving the networks."
If the government does tighten restriction on the use of Huawei kit, it might make it harder to hit that gigabit goal. While the debate about Huawei's role in the UK networks has looked resolved, the government could soon face yet more hard choices.