It is over 20 years ago that the first call was made for the UK to roll out a universal fibre network as a backbone for the 21st century economy. Today, as far as FTTH is concerned the UK doesn’t appear anywhere on the international statistics.

In the Queen’s speech the government has announced universal broadband. The rollout of 3G was patchy and incoherent, and 4G is around 60 per cent coverage today, through improving. The local rollout of cable in the late 80s/90s with lots of franchises was costly and rapidly consolidated leaving big gaps.

As one of those in the last 5 per cent, the current approach of roll out when affordable and act on market failure makes for poor progress. Can we do better? We are at an early enough stage of 5G to rethink the rollout approach to plan for universal service from the outset of deployment.

The UK attitude seems to be deploy when affordable. Even going back to the days of electricity, other countries, notably Germany, saw the potential and made it affordable by deployment. This difference in philosophy has important economic impacts. How can the UK be a leader in autonomous vehicles or the IoT, for instance, if our infrastructure is incoherent and lags?

Would electricity, gas, water, TV, radio and so on be universal services today if we had taken this approach in the past? The 1936 US Rural Electrification Act was a key activity in deploying electricity to rural areas overcoming technical and commercial barriers on the way. While welcome action is now being taken, the UK has a poor long term history on infrastructure over decades by international comparison. The picture is improving, but slowly. By its nature infrastructure investment be it in roads, rail, and energy or broadband is a long term investment.

The Royal Mail delivers a universal service at a flat rate price, as does the BBC. ITV provides universal coverage funded by advertising. There are different models of funding, be it subscription, license fee or ad-funded.

Within banking, the BACS service was for a long time effectively a mutual owned and invested in the bank owners. We are all users of the BACS service which has delivered very high quality of services over decades.

UCAS has provided a high quality university entrance system, again for decades based on a shared service model.

So, we know that it is possible to deliver a high quality service, universally, reliably at a cost that does not exclude provision to various parts of the UK, in a competitive environment.

Can we learn from this history to deliver a 5G solution for the UK during the next decade that would support the digital and wider economy and our society?

The universal mobile service is dogged by constant battles over the sites for aerials, leaving some areas overprovided and other with weak provision.

The ITV model was built on a time limited regional franchise for the infrastructure but trading in content between the regions. Could we build the 5G infrastructure in a similar way with competition for services? This way we could plan for universal service from day one without duplication or gaps in the infrastructure.

Could bidders for 5G use the UCAS or BACS models and build the infrastructure as a shared service?

I have long believed that markets are better at exploiting infrastructures than they are at building them. Once built, the model that created them does not preclude changes downstream.

Furthermore, funding by long-term bonds would allow for public participation. We might go down a cooperative model and provide a ‘divvy’ or use the ‘air miles’ or nectar models to allow users to benefit from investing in the infrastructure needed to support innovative services.

Given the wide potential uses of 5G compared to 3G and 4G, the model of four spectrum holders licensed and regulated does not seem an obvious approach.

I am not pushing one model here, but describing proven models from other sectors. If we labour with the approach that doesn’t deliver me fibre and patchy 4G then frankly how can we create competitive UK sectors in telecare, IoT, autonomous vehicles and many other application areas?

The work on standards and services will follow its own timetable. Can we be as innovative with the governance and financing of 5G as the technology? Can we build with universal service in mind from day one?

I think we need to, or risk erosion of competitiveness and lost opportunities. Comments welcomed.

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.