£160m ploughed into 5G is a fair sum. Shame the tech doesn't really exist
UK.gov insiders fairly certain cash won't be spent that way
Going by last week's Budget, it looks like the only ones still drinking the 5G Kool-Aid are senior politicians. Perhaps they think it will make them look visionary.
Insiders have told The Register that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is more concerned with spending the money set aside for a technology that does not exist than on something that does – such as better connectivity for "not-spots".
That message does not seem to have percolated up to DCMS minister Matt Hancock, who earlier this month said he has travelled all over the world and has yet to see a country as far ahead with 5G trials as the UK. One DCMS staffer described this as "absurd".
It is a view shared outside the DCMS, too. In the sherpa rooms and working groups in the capitals of Europe, where our technological futures are discussed, 5G has become a punchline.
Even the heads of mobile operators are starting to soft peddle 5G. Vodafone's chief technical officer Johan Wibergh told the recent Global Mobile Broadband Forum that the mobile industry has a tendency to over-hype things. BT/EE's chief executive, Gavin Patterson, speaking at the same event, struck a similar note of caution.
Still, last Wednesday's spending announcements had some of the usual 5G kite flying – driverless cars, eHealth, augmented reality all on one network – backed up by some "very curious elements that fall short of the policy objectives", according to our DCMS insider.
The headline figure for 5G spending was substantial: £160m in new 5G infrastructure and close to a billion of investment in "fibre and 5G" over the next five years – but the specifics were an anticlimax for those paying attention. There's also £10m for the National Cyber Security Centre to build a facility to test ways to protect those as-yet non-existent 5G networks from hackers plus an additional £5m to test 5G applications like connected cars.
The technical standards are still being worked out for 5G, with an "early drop" due in December and a first full version of the standard coming in June 2018. Neither will incorporate new radio interface connections for connected driving – it's a 4G or Wi-Fi affair, according to automotive sources, who say they are happy to work on their own projects without the help of operators.
It was the non-specifics in the budget announcement that drew more attention from political geeks. Even Hancock's predecessor, Ed Vaizey, could not see what the new broom has done differently.
Almost £1bn has been earmarked over the next five years for "5G and fibre" and this somewhat desultory term has raised concerns that the money could go the same way as previous announcements on large figures from the DCMS.
Vaizey's time at the department was not without its financial vagaries. Departmental insiders have told El Reg that the last £400m set aside for fibre investment has yet to be allocated – but the light detail on 5G spending in this budget looks to have doubled down on the non-commitment to 5G.
More importantly to the future of the 5G vision, the money is not being spent on 5G.
A tender for proposals from businesses to get a piece of £25m of government funding to explore 5G use cases was issued in October and so far the DCMS has apparently seen "some pretty interesting stuff", but very little of it has, understandably, been compliant with the as-yet not there 5G standards.
When the DCMS announced the spending plans at an event in London last month, there was a typo on a slide that said businesses's pitches for funding should be made by January. It was hastily amended, on stage, to say December. "They're spending the first phase funding as quickly as they can before the end of the financial year, splashing it on whatever," said one onlooker.
Our DCMS source said the lack of coordination of projects is a concern when it comes to worthwhile research efforts working towards 5G, which will eventually come in some form or another.
Another point, not often mentioned, is that the broadcasting and satellite industries have had to give up a large amount of radio spectrum, a scarce resource, because of claims from the mobile industry and supportive politicians around how much of it will be needed for 5G.
Incredible shrinking funds
Meanwhile, funding to institutions already studying new 5G technology has so far seen a reduction. The government said when it allocated £16m to three universities in July that it would be the first part of a four-year investment programme. Last week's budget only pledged £5m for similar studies.
A DCMS spokesperson denied funding is being cut, calling it "complete nonsense."
"The Government’s 5G Strategy clearly sets out the steps that the Government will take to realise its intention for the UK to become a world leader, and we will shortly be publishing an update to reflect the new commitments to the advancement of 5G made in the latest Budget," the spokesperson said.
Another DCMS insider said that shelving the more technologically ambitious 5G aims in favour of spending on 4G-based technologies and fibre was a fair summation of what was happening at the DCMS. They added that the work now will be on providing real-world connectivity where it is needed.
The investment advisory firm PwC said after the Budget that the bulk of investment in 5G will come in the 2020s, after standards are defined.
There is a similar vagueness in many European countries when it comes to government investment in 5G. Germany, home to one of the world's biggest mobile operators, Deutsche Telekom, is also flipping the 5G wildcard into the general fibre rollout hat and hoping to pull out one of the more ambitious use cases, like driverless cars.
But one of our sources in Hancock's DCMS said that plans are less focused than in other countries, like Italy or Japan, which have carefully determined exactly what 5G goose all the companies and institutions will be chasing by coordinating spending and research plans in a more structured way.
Not much equipment available
BT/EE, Deutsche Telekom and China Mobile have all announced trials compliant with the most up-to-date standards work on 5G, the first official release of which is due next month. But for all this activity, equipment is scarce and getting hold of it has been a problem even for those in the UK tasked with testing 5G, said a DCMS insider.
Professor Rahim Tafazolli, head of the 5G Innovation Centre in Surrey, confirmed this. "We have some test equipment but it is not widely available. It is so rare that you cannot just order it and have it."
He said that a lot of the work taking place at the 5G Innovation Centre is actually 4G. "The technologies will coexist for a long time to come and some [use cases] will be connected to 4G," giving connected cars as an example.
Tafazolli did not agree that there is a lack of focus on 5G investment. It's open competition, so whoever is interested can apply [to take part in research work]. It's good, rather than restricting.
Whatever the funds allocated in the Budget end up being spent on, it can be said with a fair degree of certainty that none of it will be 5G. ®