The UK’s 5G networks are maturing and this opens up significant opportunities for the Channel. Comms Business finds out more .

It is now over three years since the first 5G network launched in the UK and, during that time, the channel has slowly brought 5G-based services and solutions into the fold. Possibilities are evolving, and service providers, MSPs and resellers are continuing to innovate.

In terms of the progress made to the rollout of 5G networks, Martin Saunders, technical director, Highlight, explained, “Overall, progress has been slow. Whilst all major networks now support 5G and coverage is expanding, many are still finding it difficult to roll out the mast infrastructure. There is considerable opposition to masts being built, not least because you need more of them. The higher frequency radio waves of 5G are less able to penetrate buildings, so more masts are required for each given area.”

Saunders pointed to several ways in which further 5G adoption could be encouraged. He said, “If 5G is going to fulfil its promise and opportunity, central and local government together with the network operators will need to find a way to cooperate and gain the support of local businesses and residents. Unfortunately, there is still much negative misinformation regarding the health impact of 5G radio waves. Whilst some network operators have tried to explain the technology, a more fully supported education piece is needed.

“Power efficiency is another issue since there will be more power-hungry masts and base stations. We watch with interest to see how the network operators can improve their power efficiency and thus reduce the environmental impact and increase sustainability.”

Mike van Bunnens, managing director, Comms365, agreed that 5G has not quite reached maturity, stating that these networks are “still firmly in the embryonic stage, both in terms of deployment and adoption”. He put the reasons for this into context: “The Covid interruption threw many 5G cell site upgrades or builds back many months and this has continued to impact the mobile operators as they play catch up.

“Having said that, the number of 5G enables sites doubled to approximately 6,500 in 2021 and this has continued to advance in 2022. However, in the UK, right now, 5G is deployed in a non-standalone capacity which means it still relies on the 4G LTE core networks to offer service.

“It is anticipated that from 2023, some operators will start to launch 5G standalone services which will offer much higher speeds and lower latency than the current 5G non-standalone services.”

Widening the UK’s 5G networks will help with this. Van Bunnens explained, “5G remains patchy across the UK at present, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t available in a wide number of locations. Whilst 5G cell sites have been popping up in increasing numbers providing some coverage, the additional 5G cells for increased density are not quite there yet. EE is proposing up to 90 per cent 5G coverage by 2028.

“5G signal is also impacted by buildings and often struggles to penetrate walls which, in turn significantly increases latency and reduces the speeds that can be achieved inside. This will change over time, as the 5G operators increase the network density, and this will inevitably improve adoption of this technology.”

Despite these clear challenges, there is room for positivity around the possibilities 5G could unlock. Simon Fort, head of channel, Cellhire, said, “With 5G said to be at least 10 times faster than 4G, the standard has taken the definition of fast connectivity to the next level. With consumers and businesses wanting faster and more reliable connections, 5G couldn’t have entered the market at a better time.

“Although businesses tend to focus on network speed, network capacity has often been an issue – but this is being alleviated as more 5G cells are rolled out. New 5G-oriented technology is offering businesses new streams of revenue, from AR mapping to coverage in rural areas with 5G and add-on products and services.”

New possibilities

When asked what opportunities the onset of the 5G era has opened up for the Channel, Saunders, from Highlight, pointed to several areas. He said, “There are considerable opportunities for the channel. 5G is perfect for fast starts with the ability to deliver connectivity into a location quickly and with minimal contracts. As a backup technology, 5G is now becoming a viable alternative to fixed line, fibre or copper connectivity.

“We are also seeing more customers using cellular connections as their primary data network service, particularly where it is faster and more reliable than a fixed line connection. Although this does come at a higher cost. 5G is also perfect for IoT devices which are used in remote locations such as river sensors and on mobile equipment used in farming and transport.”

Van Bunnens, from Comms365, added, “As cellular communications outside of the mobile phone domain continue to become more mainstream, the opportunities for channel partners expand on a daily basis. The market is ripe for innovative 4G and 5G propositions and channel partner should look to integrate cellular services into managed solutions that add real value to the customer.

“5G shouldn’t just be seen as a secondary connection. In areas where the technology is established, it can be further enhanced with service overlays such as security, voice, video and AI to name a few.

Fort, from Cellhire, discussed evolving possibilities within particular sectors. “5G isn’t just changing the way we connect with each other; it’s also redefining what we know to be possible across many industries. For example, within healthcare, 5G enables surgical procedures to be carried out remotely, which is only the beginning.

“The opportunities are substantial, perhaps almost endless. Personally I can’t wait to see them unfold, not just in the health sector but across all industries and other sectors in the UK.”

That chimed with the view of Steve Porter, head of sales for mobile and wireless, CityFibre. He added, “The opportunities for the channel in the future will be vast but right now 5G is a positive catalyst for new technologies and applications, specifically in healthcare and manufacturing, thanks to the speed and latency available.”

David Owen, managing director of Intercity’s communications division, explained why channel companies should focus on solutions. He said, “These new opportunities need to be leveraged via a solution-based approach. Selling mobile data as a commodity may still work for your standard mobile user, but customers aren’t always aware of the potential of new technologies, and the best way to introduce that to them is through a complete solution.

“Intercity creates scalable bespoke multi-network plans to fit its customers’ needs and budget, so users will always have the most up to date technologies.”

Evolving offerings

In 2023 and beyond, resellers and MSPs will continue to evolve their portfolios to take further advantage of 5G. Comms365’s van Bunnens pointed to a few areas resellers and MSPs could explore. He said, “Resellers already selling UC and connectivity can enhance their propositions by adding in 5G as part of their service wrap, with device management, 5G connectivity, monitoring and more.

“Adding 5G alongside fixed line services into an active / active, two connection solution can significantly enhance the service quality, whilst reducing downtime and improving the end user experience.

Porter, from CityFibre, added, “MSPs have the opportunity to address a broad set of new use cases. Getting involved with a catapult or similar initiative is really helping some players refine their approach, while benefitting from key learnings.”

Highlight’s Saunders explained that strong partnerships will be critical to success. He said, “To take full advance of 5G, resellers and MSPs need to develop their relationships with mobile network operators, either direct or via aggregators such as Gamma, Wireless Logic or AQL. When sourcing mobile SIMS and 5G devices, they need to identify which vendors are easy to work with, and most importantly, identify those with stock. Stock is still a major issue due to chip shortages.

“Once a reseller or MSP has supplied devices to a customer, they need to add value to the equipment with a managed service. With a service assurance platform, resellers can offer guarantees against set targets and report back to customers on how the technology is performing. Without a managed service, the customer could simply source their own SIMS and devices.

Saunders added the market is still waiting for 5G device pricing to reduce, which has been slower than expected. “Unfortunately, business grade 5G data devices are still surprisingly expensive. We would have expected the price to reduce as the technology matures. This is again due to chip shortages.”

The end of the 3G era

As 5G networks mature across the UK, older generations of mobile connectivity will become obsolete. To prepare for this inevitability, all UK MNOs have agreed they will sunset 3G and 2G networks by 2033. Cellhire’s Fort explained, “These legacy networks have been the backbone for voice services and the majority of IoT products for some time, and the sunset is going to see an increase in new device sales and a shift in how some businesses work.

“An example can be seen through the use of smart meters in the home. Legacy smart meters using 2G and 3G will require a technical upgrade when sunset time hits.

“Many other products are taking, and will have to take, the same route. An example is cars with tracking and response systems installed.

“As many as 40 per cent of mobile personal emergency response system devices that cover critical medical use cases still rely on 2G/3G networks, which will result in a wave of poor customer service if not switched over to a secure 4G – preferably 5G, where appropriate – connection.”

Fort added that channel partners can guide customers through their options here. He said, “Although it’s far from an ideal situation for the providers of the devices, it does present an opportunity for the channel to guide them towards new hardware and upgrading to 5G.

“Indeed, with a majority of IoT products having to be upgraded at sunset time at the latest, users will benefit from an increase in connection speeds and reliability. For resellers, it’s another reason to tell customers and potential customers about future proofing their products and services with 5G offerings.”

There was agreement from channel stakeholders that, in the long term, this change will improve mobile broadband networks across the UK. Porter, from CityFibre, said, “Sunsetting 2G and 3G will change the connectivity landscape in the UK by helping MNOs free up valuable space for 5G, removing legacy costs and moving to a greener set of technology.”

Van Bunnens, from Comms365, agreed. He said, “The old 2G and 3G spectrums will be reused to deliver enhanced 4G and 5G services, so we should start to see the network reach and reliability continue to improve.”

The future

5G networks will continue to mature in 2023 and beyond, and many are positive about the opportunities that remain for channel companies.

Porter, from CityFibre, said, “We see a bright future for mobile connectivity in the UK, where combining our full fibre investment with mobile benefits both society and our economy. We underpin 5G that delivers not just faster speeds, but the kind of customer experience we all expect.

“Mobile connectivity is now demanding a lot more fibre for densification – such as the development of small cells – which results in users receiving a differentiated customer experience.”

Owen from Intercity said, “Due to the low latency of 5G, as coverage grows, we’ll see other products and devices follow in the footsteps of the automotive industry by building high-speed connectivity directly into the device, reducing the need for the device to have any real computational power and allowing much more complex solutions through smaller and cheaper devices.

“So, although mobile connectivity may not fully replace edge computing or fixed line connectivity for some of the more demanding use cases, the demand for 5G connectivity will continue to exponentially grow as connected devices become more prevalent.”

Van Bunnens, from Comms365, added data usage will continue to climb dramatically. He said, “Mobile connectivity is as much a utility as water and energy. Along with the internet, the usage of cellular connectivity will continue to rise, with new use cases appearing daily.

“If we thought we had seen usage increase over the last year, we haven’t seen anything yet. The mobile operators must keep up with this rapidly evolving market and the network infrastructure must be continually upgraded to keep pace with the dramatic data usage that will follow.”

Highlight’s Saunders expects mobile broadband to overtake fixed broadband in ubiquity. He explained, “Ultimately, we would expect ubiquitous 5G mobile access across the UK, much like 4G is today.

“At some point in the future, mobile will be considered as a genuine wide scale alternative to copper and fibre and will be used as the primary form of connectivity. This will require wider access for 5G, cheaper equipment and a higher-grade service from mobile operators with performance guarantees.”

For this possibility to become a reality, some enhancements to network performance might be required. Saunders said, “To enhance performance, there is talk of 5G providers offering a guaranteed up and down speed, where business traffic is prioritised over residential traffic.

“Mobile operators are moving into a fight with fixed line operators, with the advantage of a far more flexible offering if they can guarantee the service and experience. Added to the mix are satellite providers such as Starlink and Oneweb which can provide an excellent option for remote locations with price being a determining factor.”

This feature appeared in our December 2022 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.

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