On the 14th July 2020 the Government announced that all Huawei 5G equipment is to be removed from the UK's 5G networks by the end of 2027. In May, the 2020 5G spectrum auction was postponed in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The resulting uncertainty has cast doubt over what lies ahead for the transformative network and to what extent the UK will be delayed in reaping the benefits of its installation.

The starting point

The 2016 fiscal budget outlined the Government's commitment to make particular 5G frequencies (500 MHz from 750 MHz) of public sector spectrum available by 2020. Shortly after the announcement, Ofcom set the rules for the first 5G spectrum auction which took place in April 2018. Although many mobile operators objected to the introduction of a cap on the amount of 5G spectrum any one company can hold, the auction was successfully held and resulted in the distribution of 5G spectrum being split between EE, Three UK, O2 and Vodafone.

EE became the first network to launch commercially accessible 5G in the UK, back in May 2019. It began with coverage in six cities and since expanded at a rate of 100 new sites per month throughout 2019. Naturally, both Vodafone and O2 joined the race shortly after, by opening a combined total of 37 connectivity points across the UK, with Three UK following suit.

28th October 2019 saw the next significant advancement in 5G development, with Ofcom announcing that it will auction new frequencies to boost capacity and coverage of 5G services. The auction is to consist of the 700 MHz band and the 3.6-3.8 GHz band. The former being ideal for boosting both indoor and outdoor coverage across wide areas (such as the countryside) and the latter being the primary band for carrying large data hungry connections in concentrated areas (such as cities).

The 2020 auction

Similarly to the 2018 auction, this year's auction will involve two stages:

  • 1. Principal stage - Companies first bid for airwaves in separate 'lots' to determine how much spectrum each company wins;
  • 2. Assignment stage - A round of bidding to determine the specific frequencies that winning bidders will be allocated.

Ofcom will permit the winners of each lot to negotiate their acquired frequencies among themselves to allow mobile operators the opportunity to create continuous blocks of 5G ready signal. Ofcom have again placed a 37% cap on the overall spectrum that any one mobile company can hold following the auction.

The auction was set to take place in the spring of 2020, proceedings have however been delayed due to the ongoing pandemic restrictions. Ofcom do not expect bidding for this next portion of the 5G spectrum to commence until November 2020 at the earliest.

Whilst the UK has made great strides towards harnessing the 5G revolution, the process itself has not been without criticism. Many network operators have voiced their concerns over possible fragmentation of 5G services which result from the auction procedure and accompanying market share cap. It is said that the resulting inability to provide a unified network experience in the UK may hamper the opportunities presented by 5G services.

Telecoms Security Bill

At present however, network operators are primarily focussed with addressing the logistics required to comply with the government's recent decision to remove all Huawei infrastructure from 5G networks. The decision follows the conclusion reached by the National Cyber Security Centre that the security of Huawei's 5G equipment cannot be guaranteed due to the uncertainties in its supply chain. The decision will be formalised by way of a Telecoms Security Bill and is set to be introduced in the autumn of 2020. The Bill will prohibit the purchase of Huawei 5G equipment after 31st December 2020 and require all Huawei equipment to be removed from 5G networks by the end of 2027. These provisions follow and are in addition to the ban announced in January 2020 of Huawei (as a "high-risk" vendor) from sensitive, core parts of 5G.

What's next?

In light of the Government's ban on Huawei equipment, coupled with the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 crisis, many network operators have voiced their concerns over the upcoming spectrum auction and have called for the auction to be replaced by an even distribution of the frequencies for a set price. Their argument is that this would alleviate the financial pressures of the auction process and allow the redirection of any capital saved towards investing in the distribution of 5G. It is worth noting however that a similar request was unsuccessful back in 2018.

Amongst the uncertainty, what remains clear is that 5G represents a transformative force, set to revolutionise every inch of the global economy. What remains to be seen is when and the extent to which the UK will benefit from its deployment.

Originally published 22 July 2020.

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