As COVID-19 forces people across the world to work from home, the global transition to 5G networks has never been so critical.
The rollout of 5G represents a generational shift, which is likely to have a profound impact on how we live, work and play for decades to come. Its importance has been heightened by current events, which has put the existing network under increased scrutiny.
Yet, after years of hype, to many the 5G transition is feeling increasingly like it’s happening in slow motion. The UK rollout has lagged behind many other countries, in part due to ongoing political wrangling. Last month, the UK government defeated a “Huawei rebellion” of MPs in the latest Commons vote on the Chinese firm’s involvement in ‘non-core parts’ of our network.
The current regulatory framework has also played a role in hampering 5G expansion. As previously discussed, the UK planning system needs to rise to the challenges that 5G deployment brings. This includes exploring a range of reforms to permitted development rights.
Some Local Authorities have started to respond to this need, with Local Plans being amended to ensure a more streamlined approach to digital infrastructure deployment. Others are drafting digital infrastructure strategies aimed at facilitating future rollouts. The sector could be more ambitious, collaborating directly with the 5G industry to provide policy solutions for its rollout.
The benefits of a fully integrated 5G system go beyond high-speed video calls, webinars or streaming services. In time, 5G could facilitate a new approach to urban living. By tapping into enhanced data analytics, 5G would allow us to gain real-time insights into our cities. How we use this new technology will play an essential role in shaping the places we develop from both a human and urban perspective.
At a commercial level, 5G also creates opportunities to inform many aspects of the real estate market. Developers and funders are looking for new ways to analyse data and unearth insights into the needs of their occupants and the buildings in which they live and work.
For planners, urban designers and architects, this presents an exciting challenge, requiring us to integrate our thinking around building design, master planning and placemaking.
In recent weeks the demand for network coverage has surged as work and our social lives shift to home. Vodafone has reported a 50% increase in network usage in some European countries. This spike caused by the current COVID-19 crisis simply serves to highlight the existing need for 5G infrastructure to be deployed faster; ensuring coverage supply doesn’t become a constraint. For the full cultural and economic benefits of 5G to be realised, eliminating coverage ‘black spots’ must be a priority. Access to the internet should be seen as a utility, not a luxury.
5G operators should be prepared to engage with Local Authorities at a strategic level, in a bid to streamline the planning approach and help unlock deployment across the country.
Ultimately, 5G’s true value will be over the longer term, facilitating the next phase of technology innovation and creating the opportunity for economic diversity across communities.