5G in the UK: How the UK is Paving the Way for 5G Innovations

18-08-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, the UK government announced a new £40 million fund that will be used to help integrate 5G technologies into smart spaces. What challenges do IoT and 5G technologies currently face, what will the new fund do, and is this fund just another wasted scheme?

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) emphasises that this initiative is a pivotal part of the broader programme to drive 5G adoption, especially in sectors where there are significant local capability and growth opportunities.

What challenges do 5G technologies face?

5G was supposed to be the network of the future, bringing about massive download speeds, offering low latencies, and empowering edge-driven services. While numerous 5G networks have been installed over the past few years, only the latest devices support 5G, and those still using 4G have noticed no increase in improvement whatsoever (with the idea being that those who can use 5G will free up the 4G network).

To make matters worse, 5G networks themselves do not offer anywhere near the speeds that were being quoted, and the use of short-wave microwaves means that their range is extremely limited. Thus, it seems that 5G networks are more akin to Wi-Fi networks; they are totally fine if you are in a built-up area but totally useless when outside of a city.

From these experiences of 5G, it is clear that 5G has faced a number of challenges. The first is that due to the limited range of 5G towers, far more of them are needed compared to earlier mobile networks. The need for more towers not only significantly increases the material cost but also incurs far more costs with regard to licenses and bureaucracy from local councils.

Furthermore, more towers mean that more people have to live network to large poles, something which hasn’t gone down well with local residents. This increase in the use of towers combined with an increasingly paranoid population has even triggered numerous conspiracy theories, including the idea that 5G towers cause COVID.

While 5G can certainly handle more traffic, the lack of 5G-capable devices has seen difficulties in return on investments. This has also been negatively affected by the lack of cloud-based vehicular solutions that were expected to dominate the market at this point. Thus, 5G network operators are seeing far fewer customers than initially anticipated. 

In addition to these challenges, the increasing use of low-energy network technologies such as LoRA are making cellular systems less popular with IoT devices. For comparison, 5G devices need to be within a mile or two from a tower to use the network, but LoRa can connect devices as far as 10 miles away. 

Additionally, smart spaces generally consist of many hundreds of IoT devices, and most of these are likely to be operating on low-energy sources such as batteries, solar panels, and energy harvesters. In such applications, cellular connections can not only drain a battery fast but offer bandwidths that are far in excess of what is actually needed. By contrast, LoRA can enable devices to send a few essential bytes at a time and operate on a single battery for years.

Thus, 5G struggles with its high price tag, low range, and low adoption rate.

UK government launches £40m fund to help 5G innovations

Recently, the UK government announced a new fund that will allow local authorities to help invest and develop new 5G solutions. As 5G networks continue to be rolled out, the UK government is looking to level up the entirety of the country, and this means ensuring that all areas have access to the latest technologies, not just the minority in London. 

Launched by the Department for Science, Innovation, and Technology (DSIT), the £40m fund will be shared with local authorities that will be established as 5G Innovation Regions (5GIRs). Examples of projects and applications that the UK government is looking to invest in include smart farming, smart outdoor spaces, and advanced traffic monitoring systems. 

This fund, as outlined by the DSIT, is part of a wider strategy to ensure that places throughout the UK can unlock opportunities in the digital economy using advanced wireless connectivity. The goal is to foster a 5G ecosystem that promotes "learning by doing".

By helping local authorities to encourage 5G development, the resulting infrastructure that will be constructed will also allow local populations also to take advantage of the newly installed networks. This helps mobile network providers bypass the need for economic justification for installing networks, as the launch of multiple 5G technology projects will provide an extra amount of demand.

This aligns with the UK's Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, which envisions a future where advanced wireless infrastructure is an integral part of the UK's economy and society by 2030.

However, the fund is only available to local authorities, meaning that individuals and businesses cannot apply. Additionally, the competition for funding will require that local authorities can drive economic growth across the UK by supporting places to adopt advanced wireless technologies for services based around local opportunities for growth, accelerate commercial investment in 5G and other advanced wireless technologies by aggregating and demonstrating demand, and foster the 5G ecosystem enabling “learning by doing”.

The broader vision here is not just about improving connectivity. It's about the government's commitment to the Levelling Up priorities, ensuring that communities across the UK, not just metropolitan areas, can benefit from the advancements of the digital age.

Is this fund just another wasted scheme?

While it is perfectly understandable why the government has launched this new project, whether it will actually do any good remains to be seen. Unless major 5G projects can be rolled out by engineers, it is unlikely that more funding to increase 5G network coverage will have any major benefit.

Furthermore, as smart cities and smart spaces are still in their infancy, it is very unlikely that increasing coverage will suddenly see such technologies being integrated. The inclusion of smart spaces could even see a backlash from the public, who may not like the idea of being constantly monitored.

Drone applications, such as delivery and agriculture, can heavily benefit from 5G, but just like smart cities, these technologies are far from mature, with no delivery systems currently in active use and rural areas relying mostly on manual labour and large machines. In the case of rural areas, it makes more sense to use a long-range technology, such as LoRa, due to the extreme distances involved. 

As self-driving vehicles are not going to be practical in the near future, it is likely that such vehicle networks won’t be needed until at least “7G”. Even if autonomous vehicles were developed and tested tomorrow, numerous amounts of public and government discussions would arise (as there are a number of ethical concerns, including who is at fault during a traffic collision), preventing their use until all the issues have been addressed.

Overall, the world is not ready for 5G, and when asked, most people would rather have a better 4G connection. Drones have failed to materialise into any industry, smart cars are still yet to be developed, and most people don’t require 5G for everyday use.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.