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What’s Holding up 5G in the UK?

If you're into technology, there's a good chance that you're waiting with bated breath for every shred of news that may give you a hint about when you'll be able to get your hands on the next-generation of 5G wireless devices. If you live in the UK, there are already some smartphones coming to the market that include the wireless technology. This includes the Huawei Mate X 5G, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G. The problem is that nobody seems to be able to pin down exactly when you'll have a real, widespread 5G cellular network to connect those devices to.

The reason for that is the fact that the major wireless operators in the UK are finding that the path to deploying their next-generation networks is far from clear in many parts of the country. There are many factors at play here, including governmental red tape, local resistance to new infrastructure and a workforce crunch that is making it hard for carriers to staff up on their deployments. For residents and anyone else interested in the current state of 5G deployments in the UK, here's an overview to answer the question: What's holding up 5G in the UK?

Attack of the NIMBYs

One of the greatest advantages of the new 5G standard is the fact that it may be used to extend true high-speed internet access to places that have traditionally been under-served by fixed broadband providers. That means it holds the promise of finally ending a pervasive service gap in rural areas, and could even help to alleviate what appears to be a nationwide epidemic of poor internet access speeds. The problem that wireless carriers are having is that some of the citizens in the areas that would benefit most from the availability of 5G networks are putting up a fight regarding placement of new, sometimes larger, transmission towers and equipment. The problem even extends into city centres, where installation crews are often met by protests when they show up to install transmission masts to support 5G service.

A Lack of Qualified Staff

Right now, the UK is also going through the tightest labour market that anyone has seen in a generation, and that too is hampering efforts to roll out 5G networks around the country. As it turns out, the lack of labour is causing all kinds of delays in the installation of the fibre optic systems that will serve as the backhaul data network for the coming 5G networks. In addition, carriers are also having to turn to online IT training programs to meet the demand for qualified staff, which is expected to remain high. Without proper support staff in place, it's going to be impossible to maintain the new high-tech equipment that makes 5G possible, and it appears that some carriers are beginning to recognise that and delay their plans.

Trouble Across the Spectrum

Last, but certainly not least, a major squabble has broken out over the way that the UK's technology regulators, OFCOM, plans to auction off the wireless frequencies that will power next-generation 5G networks. At issue is the fact that OFCOM is planning to bundle the 700MHz and 3.6GHz frequency ranges together for sale to interested providers. That has caused Vodafone, one of the UK's largest wireless providers to cry foul, arguing that holding the auction in that manner is going to splinter the 5G service market all over the country. They claim that because the two frequencies are used for very different purposes, selling them together could allow a single provider to buy spectrum they don't need just to deny it to their competition. That could mean that one company's 5G network would excel at long-distance coverage, while another did at high-density applications, and neither would have the opportunity to build out a proper network that could do both. UK mobile network, Three, has also taken issue with the 5G spectrum auction in the past.

What it All Means

Put simply, all of the problems that the UK's wireless carriers seem to be encountering add up to some serious headaches. First, they must find the skilled labour it takes to deploy their 5G networks in the first place, then they need to find a way to get the local citizenry to get out of the way and let them do the work. On top of that, any delay in the spectrum auction process could make it more likely that carriers will have to resort to a patchwork of technologies to create their new networks, rather than adopting a more unified standard that will stand the test of time.

So far, the major carriers are still insisting that it's full steam ahead when it comes to 5G in the UK. For example, EE still plans to have 5G service up and running in certain parts of 16 cities by the end of 2019. Vodafone has also announced plans to begin rolling out 5G across seven cities beginning in July. Other major UK carriers all have plans to do similar small-scale 5G rollouts within the next 12 months.

While there are some plans in place, it is clear that the UK’s initial 5G rollout has become less than ambitious, after all, ‘parts’ of 16 cities is far from universal coverage. With providers already stretched thin as it is, it wouldn't take much to create a delay. So, for right now, the ultimate answer to the question of what's holding up 5G in the UK is simple: lots of little things adding up to big problems. For citizens of the UK, that means it's wait and see when it comes to 5G for the foreseeable future.

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