Is Expanding 5G a Better Temporary Solution for the UK’s Internet Than Fibre?

I’d like to start this by freely conceding that given the problems going on in the world at the moment (Ukraine/Russia), complaining about the quality of internet within the UK right now might sound like a rather frivolous point. Having a crap connection to your home is one thing, but having it blown up by a missile clearly puts things into a better perspective of importance! – Attempting to put that to one side though, it is still hard to deny that as a supposed 1st-world country, the UK’s internet is currently rated as the 43rd ‘best’ (as ridiculous as that sounds) in the world. A figure that, I think many would agree, is pretty pathetic.

With the government having recently reaffirmed, only last February, its continued plan to bring ‘gigabit’ fibre to 85% of UK homes by 2025 (with total coverage by 2030) though, the snail’s pace at which that supposed ‘roll-out’ is happening clearly demonstrates that the chances of this target being achieved, at this precise moment, would appear to be optimistic at best and outright stupid at worst! – Oh, and just to put this speed factor into context, the UK government, rather quietly I might add, changed their definition of ‘gigabit’ around a year ago. Almost certainly as a means of making the target slightly more achievable.

With all this in mind, though, would a huge expansion of 5G be a far better short-to-medium-term solution than an improbable and potentially impractical fibre project?

5G Internet – A Better Short Term Solution than Fibre?

Just to make the point clear, for those of you already feverously typing in the comments, I am not for one second suggesting that 5G should act as any kind of alternative to home fibre. The latter is, by far and away, the best long term solution. Largely because it opens the door to even more speed improvements being made in the future. – Living in a rural village, however, I am under no illusions that the chance of fibre landing on my doorstep within the next 3 years seems more than a little ridiculous.

So, stuck with fairly crap internet I am. With this in mind though, I find it more than a little frustrating that even with an upgraded copper landline broadband connection, incidentally, the first upgrade my areas phone service has probably seen in the last 40 years, the speeds I can get on my relatively cheap 5G smartphone can often exceed that (with comparable latency) by up to 10 times.

As such, I put forward the following question: Since the 85% fibre rollout target seems about as likely as me fitting into my 28″ jeans again, should the government consider utilising and/or supporting greater 5G coverage/rollout as a solid interim alternative?…

A Case to Be Made

Again, I feel compelled to once again state that I’ll be jumping with joy when fibre lands at my house. Until that point though, whenever it might happen, I still view 5G as the best short-to-mid-term solution the UK has to get its internet in better order! – What are the benefits and problems this will bring though? Well, let’s take a look at some of the key factors on both sides:

Why it could work:

  • A single tower can provide high-speed internet to hundreds of homes
  • Yes, it’s wireless, but pretty much all even relatively modern tech these days has (or can have) some kind of wireless compatibility. Failing this, plenty of internet providers have started offering 4G/5G based router options that don’t require any kind of landline.
  • Compared to standard copper broadband, 5G is roughly 5-10 times faster with the only downside being a slightly higher latency. And no, this wouldn’t (probably) be enough to affect gaming and certainly not the average home user
  • It would be significantly less expensive, and disruptive, than digging up thousands of miles of roads and especially so in incredibly rural areas such as those in Scotland, Yorkshire, Wales, and Cornwall.

Why it probably won’t happen:

  • 5G is set to get supplanted by 6G by around 2030. It would be an investment in tech that isn’t going to be ‘modern’ for very long.
  • Everyone wants better internet, but no one wants a big broadcast tower in their, metaphorical or otherwise, back garden
  • There are more than a few nuts out there that think 5G helped COVID spread and/or other such conspiracy nonsense (see Huawei below).

Why the fibre rollout has so many problems:

  • The telecommunications industry is still predominantly supplied by products manufactured by Huawei. A company which, as you may recall, has been (mostly) banned from any further (major) phone network involvement in the UK. – Why? Well, concerns over backdoor security being in a place which, to my best understanding, has never yet been identified in any of their products. – The short version though is that the biggest name in telecommunications can’t have any notable involvement here.
  • BT owns the vast majority of telegraph poles within the UK. They will not, however, allow other companies to use and/or lease these. A factor that basically requires fibre rollout through other companies (such as Virgin) to go through (under) the roads. A factor that, by proxy of huge inconvenience and logistics, will clearly make the rollout take massively longer. Edit – Following a discussion with a member of our Facebook channel (Nathan Rennie-Waldock) it does appear that in 2019 Ofcom mandated that access to BT poles (and ducts) to third-party ‘communication’ companies had to be allowed following an initial ruling having been made in 2011. Given the lack of expansion to date though, it would appear that BT is almost certainly fighting this either legally or merely by attempting to kill it as much as possible through unreasonable leasing fees, access control, and/or bureaucracy.
  • Mr Bull from Peppa Pig might enjoy digging up the road, but I daresay even he might take issue at the colossal inconvenience this would cause as roadworks pop up on some of those tiny Victorian streets in UK towns/cities.

What Do You Think?

So, I’ve attempted to lay out my case for why 5G expansion might be a better interim solution to the UK’s internet issues while a better more practical timespan could be allowed for the much needed UK fibre rollout, but what do you think? – We’d love to hear your comments whether you agree with this sentiment or not!

Mike Sanders

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