Automated, self-driving vehicles. Ultra-high broadband speeds. On-demand mobile video. Internet of Things (IoT) services that help reduce energy consumption. Wearable devices that aid health management.

If there’s a way 5G can benefit society that hasn’t been thought of yet, it’s surely only a matter of time before it finds its way into a serious study and from there into an excitable headline.

But maybe we should take a step back at this point, and consider the reality for a number of people — a reality that is far removed from watching a Harry Potter box set on your mobile. It’s a chastening thought, at a time when governments all over the world are setting aside or seeking out vast quantities of spectrum to deliver a high speed, high throughput 5G mobile future, that there are more than a few areas of the British Isles that would settle for good old 2G, if they could only get a signal.

The British Infrastructure Group (BIG) of cross-party MPs recently noted, in its report Mobile Coverage: A good call for Britain?, that the quality of mobile phone coverage has remained ‘alarmingly poor’ in rural areas of the UK. One third of mobile phone users, or 17 million people, across the UK report poor or no reception at home, and 28 per cent of all rural areas in the UK remain without coverage.

So what’s the answer? One option (from the UK’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport) is compulsory network sharing: national roaming, in other words. But this is hardly a business-friendly approach: where, for instance, is the operator incentive for further investment? And, in any case, what good does this do for signal-free blackspots?

A less contentious — and probably more effective — solution could be for UK regulators and mobile operators to pursue a multi-operator shared spectrum solution. In this approach a single network is built and operated for remote areas by a ‘neutral host’ — which all operators can then offer services on. Not only is this is a technically feasible system that can work with existing standards, but it is much more cost-effective and attractive for operators, while meeting consumer requirements for coverage and choice.

But how urgent is this coverage need? It’s important to remember that limited coverage isn’t just about people who choose to live in cottages on some windswept moor and can’t get a signal. It’s about a lot of UK villages and schools. It’s about bringing mobile broadband and with it fast remote medical diagnosis to hard-to-reach areas. It’s about helping farmers to find or treat animals and effectively manage crops. It’s about helping businesses to feel confident about moving outside urban areas where land is cheaper. It is urgent – and it’s important to get it right.

It’s also worth remembering that a coverage solution would be more credible if it could be applied effectively to other countries facing similar challenges. A neutral host, shared spectrum approach could work for many territories and not just the UK.

And if operators as well as regulators can agree on the benefits of one approach, perhaps we could then deliver that 5G vision — to everyone – whether at home, at work, in their car or on public transport.

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