The barriers to 5G deployment in the UK

With the 5G rollout expanding across the UK, we look at some of the potential barriers to the UK's 5G deployment

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As the 5G switch-on expands throughout the UK, some mobile operators are noticing potential barriers holding back the next-generation network rollout.

Poor infrastructure such as minimal radio connectivity and transport signals would limit the ability for 5G to be delivered in a smooth and secure manner. Additional challenges also stem from a lack of suitable equipment, such as compatible antennas, while limited access to mobile spectrum and poor collaboration between local authorities heap on further complexities. Access to fibre networks is another widespread challenge in both rural and urban areas.

Network providers have also suggested that 70 percent of UK sites will need upgraded backhaul within the next four years to meet 5G requirements, according to a report by Analysys Mason. Backhaul refers to the connection between base stations to a mobile operator’s core network, and it can be transmitted across physical cabling like fibre or wireless microwave links.

Read next: Companies developing 5G in the UK

Lack of fibre in rural areas

Fibre backhaul is essential for supporting 5G due to its scalability and security requirements, which are used to manage the vast amount of mobile traffic. Sites with existing 3G and 4G microwave or satellite backhaul are not suitable for 5G because they cannot support the amount of traffic 5G is expected to generate.

Dark fibre – an industry term for unused fibre-optic cable – is another lingering problem for network providers, with a lack of flexibility in the process of providing new backhaul connections cited as a likely barrier to 5G, according to the Analysys Mason report.

“Largely, it remains a big challenge to deliver 5G in the UK. There is a lack of dark fibre and numerous infrastructure challenges, not to mention that the rollout of 4G is still ongoing,” Nick Beardsley, enterprise director at Olive Communications told Computerworld.


Infrastructure costs are one of the biggest barriers for 5G deployment in the UK. Providers and local authorities are aware of the need for newer network architecture for delivering modern healthcare, transport and manufacturing applications, yet this all  comes at high costs due to new building requirements.

The government that an overall investment of £3-4 billion will be required in the overall deployment of 5G.

“The need to refresh infrastructure comes at a huge cost," said Iain Shearman, MD at KCOM NNS. "Not only do telcos have to install 5G antennas, they also have to lay the groundwork. Millions of fibre optic cables will need to be in place to connect each antenna – an incredibly expensive task.”

“It [5G] is a fundamentally different business model from 4G, 3G and 2G and some of the reasons why are, firstly, GSMA estimates the cost per square kilometre of building a 5G network to be four times more expensive than the 4G network,” Angus Ward, CEO at BearingPoint added.

Access to spectrum

“Spectrum is also extremely important, as it always has been,” James Gray, director at Graystone Strategy said. “Experts at the International Telecommunication Union say that to successfully deploy a full 5G experience you need 100Mhz of contiguous spectrum. At present only one UK operator has this, Three, after a recent agreement with Ofcom, which allowed it to link up blocks of spectrum.”

5G requires access to various spectrum bands with different characteristics. Spectrum refers to the radio waves that are allocated to mobile operators to transmit data. While telecommunications regulator Ofcom is preparing to make more spectrum available in the UK, fear surrounding insufficient access for local providers may also impact the potential of wider 5G deployments, because of limited access to multiple spectrum bands in different locations.

Access to localised spectrum is more likely to drive the successful deployment of 5G in different areas, however there is a need to ensure that all 5G networks are compatible with localised solutions.

“The deployment of 5G will depend on spectrum and handset availability, as well as deployment of a more virtualised and distributed infrastructure across the UK, after the initial rollout in the country’s main cities,” Gunter Reiss, VP of strategy at A10 Networks said.


Although security concerns are not new to network providers, there are some additional challenges for 5G deployment that were not applicable to previous networks.

“For service providers, the top concern is security as they transition to 5G," said A10 Networks' Gunter Reiss. "With the explosion of new devices, including millions of IoT devices that will be accessing the network, the attack surface expands exponentially.

“Service providers will have to upgrade their networks with the latest security tools like firewalls and distributed denial of service (DDoS) detection to ensure the network is protected from malware, intrusions and DDoS attacks so that 5G services can be delivered with zero interruption.”

“With any great advancement comes the risk of someone wanting to cause harm – be that for ego, financial gain, state sponsored espionage or rogue actors all wanting the same thing – knowledge,” Majid Ali, principal cyber security consultant at NTT Security told Computerworld.

“The ability to know what is occurring, how it occurs and when it occurs provides these threat actors with a means to launch sophisticated attacks to gain access to data. Providers and government bodies will need to combat this emerging threat .”

This could include the use of techniques like threat modelling, which allows organisations to map out attack vectors and provide the right countermeasures.

“While 5G will see the deployment of new supporting infrastructure, it will also no doubt leverage components of its predecessors – 3G and 4G networks. Therefore, attacks attributed to older networks may allow malicious individuals to move laterally across networks to get to the intended target, which reinforces the importance of thinking like an attacker in order to stop them,” Ali explained.

Collaboration with local authorities

British government policy aims for the UK to become a world leader in 5G, however, support for full-fibre is essential for low-latency network connectivity – something that's currently lacking.

Digital infrastructure such as smart cities, homes and road improvements are also as important for 5G deployment, so it is vital that government put this at the core of the industrial strategy.

With the government’s target to have the majority of the population covered by 5G signal by 2027, collaboration between local authorities and network providers is essential to ensure that the deployment is followed through effectively in urban areas.

According to a recent report by the National Infrastructure Commission, the UK is to undergo digital infrastructure deployments across major roads and railways to ensure 5G-readiness.

However, the lack of engagement with network providers about such plans will create barriers to the speedy deployment of 5G.

“We must seek greater collaboration between the public and private sectors. The complex blend of stakeholders – mobile operators, businesses, landowners, local and national government must work together to ensure the successful and swift deployment of 5G across the country,” Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London and Global Tech Advocates said.

“Fast connectivity is crucial to the country’s digital ambitions and the international potential of businesses based in the UK, so we must cut through the complexity and ramp up efforts to deploy 5G as swiftly as possible.”

Overall, some of the UK’s network providers are equally racing to rollout 5G to business and consumer customers yet with various locations still yet to get the green light, but there are still many factors at play for a successful 5G rollout.

In a midst of security concerns and cost scares, network providers and local authorities are advised to collaborate to tackle all barriers for a smooth network deployment.

Once the required technologies and applications are in place, along with the necessary support from government, operators will be able to more confidently switch on 5G in cities and rural areas.


Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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