Few technologies have been pushed with as much fanfare as 5G. The high-capacity and low-latency signals, which means both that data can be transferred in large quantities and almost instantly. The technology arrived with predictions that it would hasten a “fourth industrial revolution” of driverless cars and surgical robots.
In 2018, O2 proudly announced that it had written to the chief executive of every single FTSE 100 company to offer them the ability to experiment with O2’s fledgling 5G network.
Two years later, it is unclear if anyone actually took O2 up on its offer. The testbed scheme was last mentioned by O2 in 2019, when it said that the scheme had resulted in partnerships with businesses in the construction, retail, transport and utility sectors.
An O2 spokesman was unable to provide the names of any FTSE 100 companies which had taken part in the testbed scheme when asked about the project last week.
In comparison to the late introduction of 4G networks in the UK, which was later than countries like Angola, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, ministers have pushed for 5G to be introduced quickly.
“The Government was determined the UK were to be a leader given the large economic benefit associated with connectivity,” says Matthew Howlett of Assembly. “Certainly we have got off to a good start with all operators launching earlier than anticipated, and well before Apple’s 5G enabled iPhone.”
However, the rollout of 5G networks across the UK has been undeniably slower than the previous generation.
“Last time the operators got to about 50pc coverage within a year of launch,” says James Barford, the director of telecoms at Enders Analysis“It’s a bit slower [now].” Enders estimates that the 4G launch was twice as fast as the current 5G rollout.
EE, which operates the largest 5G network in the UK, has launched 5G in 100 towns and cities which are collectively home to 32pc of the population. But the actual amount of coverage is likely to be lower as networks typically only have 5G coverage for parts of the cities they operate in. Earlier this year, the UK 5G Innovation Network estimated that 5G coverage extends to 10.8pc of London and is as low as 2.3pc coverage in Liverpool.
Telcos are likely to be constrained in further development. The recent decision to force networks to rip out Huawei equipment is expected by the Government to set back expansion by three years. Meanwhile, the pandemic has meant demand for mobile internet slumping.