It felt appropriate to start a recent week in the Palace of Westminster, where discussions have driven democracy since the 13th century. I was there to share ideas with a group of influential people across Government and the mobile industry committed to achieving a single aim: to make 5G accessible to all.
It was thanks to an invitation from PICTFOR to speak at their recent roundtable, as my work at Nominet is focused on tackling connectivity issues with new approaches to spectrum sharing. As we forge ahead towards a 5G future, dynamic spectrum sharing would ensure we don’t repeat the same behaviours that are leaving too many Britons with poor – or without any – mobile connectivity.
For even in today’s interconnected world, more than a third of the UK remains without 4G, according to Ofcom’s latest figures. Despite being over-quoted, Albert Einstein’s words ring true on this issue; it is madness to keep doing the same thing over and over again but expect different results. If we continue to approach spectrum allocation in the same way we always have done, we’ll never move the dial on nationwide connectivity, and the dreams of ‘5G for all’ will never be realised.
Some would suggest that the challenge is ‘not all about spectrum’ – I would agree, but we must recognise the crucial role spectrum plays and how it lays the foundation to any network deployment. While the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have done stellar work in creating and managing the infrastructure that have got the country’s connectivity to where it is today, now is the time for refinement and for innovation to meet the increasing demands of a connected society.
And it all starts with spectrum. This finite resource is the only means by which we can connect everyone to 5G, but this relies on us approaching spectrum as we do airspace and look to share rather than monopolise. Imagine if British Airways purchased chunks of airspace above our country for its sole use, and then only used it if there was a compelling business case to do so. Thankfully, airlines seek exclusive paths through public airspace, and more people can travel the world as a result.
Currently, MNOs purchase spectrum for their own exclusive use. This approach to spectrum allocation has proved successful in connecting the urban centres of the country, but rural communities are missing out due to rigid business models. For example, those areas not deemed cost-effective to connect – the sparsely populated areas of the country where weather and topography make laying cables challenging – are left with poor connections, if they exist at all. This has resulted in an urban-rural divide that will hold back our country and counter policymakers’ vision of seamless connectivity and a 5G that works for all, regardless of where they call home.
It’s an issue that is clearly close to the hearts of the various MPs present at PICTFOR who fear their constituents are missing out on accessing what has become a necessity in our digital world. A more dynamic approach to spectrum would help connect these rural dwellers by allowing smaller, perhaps local, businesses to use the vacant spectrum to provide much needed internet access. Why should spectrum stand empty while people struggle to access online services, educational opportunities or maintain communications?
Importantly, by creating the potential for new business models and lowering the threshold for market entry, the changed approach to spectrum would enable new players to enter what has historically been a space dominated by only a few to date. These would likely be small, innovative and agile companies and would provide the new thinking and technologies needed to make Britain a 5G leader and to provide the economic benefit that 5G for all could bring.
As we approach Ofcom’s consultation on the 3.6Ghz band, it is a crucial time to be discussing this, and the ideal moment to open our minds to new solutions to the same old problems. We live in innovative times, inching towards innovative technologies, so we need innovative thinking to access the spoils. Dynamic spectrum sharing is a solution we should no longer ignore.
Read more about Nominet’s work in dynamic spectrum sharing.