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Mobile site woes threaten to leave UK at a 5G loss

Countries will need tall masts or lots of sites to provide the most advanced 5G services. That's a problem for the UK.

Iain Morris

September 29, 2021

6 Min Read
Mobile site woes threaten to leave UK at a 5G loss

The photo library on Andrea Dona's smartphone is a digital scrapbook of mobile towers and basestation equipment in beautiful European cities. A robot head of boxes and poles sprouts improbably from the ancient roof of the Italian university building where Galileo once taught and Dona, Vodafone UK's chief network officer, more recently studied. A mast looms over the train station in some picturesque town.

"I know I shouldn't be tower-spotting, but I do take pictures when I am about," chuckles Dona. "If you go to these countries, you have 20-, 25- and 30-meter masts. You would never get that in the UK."

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Complaints that building rules are too restrictive in the UK are not new, but they come with a warning as operators continue to invest in 5G. Today, there is no mobile application that demands the latest generation of network technology. But if one suddenly arrives, the difficulty of erecting 5G equipment could place the UK at a major disadvantage. "It is a concern," says Dona.

Spectrum shenanigans

The problem is partly down to spectrum. To get the most out of 5G, operators need to move up the frequency range. Where the industry used 2.1GHz for 3G and bands up to and including 2.6GHz for 4G, stakeholders have converged on 3.5GHz as the 5G sweet spot. Higher bands mean faster services but weaker signals and lousier coverage. Going much higher than 3.5GHz would force operators to put a basestation on every street corner.

But even 3.5GHz might be too high for a UK grid of sites based on lower spectrum bands. One proxy is the number of towers that host basestation equipment. The UK is currently home to about 40,000 of these, according to a well-placed source. That equates to about six for every 10,000 people, or one for every six square kilometers. It seems to put the UK a long way behind mobile-mad South Korea, with 56 4G sites per 10,000 people and one for every 350 square meters.

Many European operators have been tackling the 5G coverage problem with a technology called dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). This essentially allows operators to split their lower-band spectrum between 4G and 5G services and overcome the range limitations of higher frequencies.

"With mid-band, you are not going to get enough coverage on these cell grids we have and there is a move to putting 5G in low bands," said Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with Heavy Reading (a sister company to Light Reading), in a discussion about 5G at Informa's recent 5G World event in London.

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Vodafone UK is one operator that has relied heavily on DSS for its 5G rollout so far. "I think DSS has a very well-defined role to play in 5G," says Dona. "When you are introducing 3.5GHz, that has challenges. You are going to have to upgrade your site and you have to be quite intrusive in the way you intervene in the network."

Yet DSS is not short of critics, and they include Nick Read, Vodafone's own CEO. "Some operators are taking DSS, which is effectively giving you a 5G symbol but 4G performance," he grumbled to financial analysts on a call last November, despite his own company's use of DSS technology. "We know that if we deploy the significant 3.5GHz-type spectrum along with 700MHz when it is available in each of the markets, that is real 5G."

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel here on Light Reading.

Without extensive mid-band coverage, though, his real 5G may not look very impressive. Setting up new sites sounds like an obvious answer, but this densification – as the industry calls it – would demand a huge investment at a time when telco revenues are basically static from one year to the next. And UK regulations are not helping, says Dona.

"Today we have got real struggles with the Electronic Communications Code," he says. Obtaining planning permission can be difficult and costly, according to the Vodafone man, and some local authorities are more stringent than others. "Site providers need to facilitate rollout of 5G and it needs to be at the right price and consistent – we can't be constantly blocked."

There is also growing industry concern about the distortion in the towers market created by Cellnex, a Spanish company that has bought up much of Europe's tower infrastructure in the last few years. Vodafone rival BT has raised concern about a Cellnex deal to buy several thousand towers from CK Hutchison, the parent of mobile operator Three UK. If it goes through, BT complained to the Competition and Markets Authority last week, prices will inevitably rise and 5G rollout will be harder.

"Vodafone is very much for open and competitive markets," says Dona when asked for his company's view about the Cellnex deal. "If there is competition in the market and there is access to the masts that is fair, then it will work for all of us."

Mast envy

The alternative to setting up new sites is to build higher masts. "It is hard to emphasize how important mast height is," said Scott Petty, the former chief technology officer for Vodafone UK (now the group's chief digital and information officer), during a press conference in 2018. "If you have an extra 20 meters, you can deploy over a much larger area and might need only one mast instead of 16."

Height could ease deployment in other ways, too. Putting mobile equipment on the rooftops of buildings means navigating ledges and working within various site constraints. These could be forgotten if operators were allowed to use taller masts. But the situation has not improved since 2018, when Petty complained about government restrictions on their height.

Encouragingly, some rules could be relaxed under reforms to the Electronic Communications Code proposed by the government in July last year. "The proposal is that you do not need additional permission for up to a five-meter extension of the mast," says Dona. "If I can get an extra five meters, I can get further out. If not, then I need to densify, and if I need to densify, then I need to negotiate terms with a lot of people."

The UK's 5G infrastructure is probably not the number-one government priority in September 2021. Analysts are dubious that any mobile application requiring good 5G mid-band coverage is around the corner. That will suit authorities already contending with coronavirus, food and fuel shortages, other Brexit-related woes and an energy sector hamstrung by regulatory price caps. A killer app that works badly in the UK is not what the government needs.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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