LONDON -- TechXLR8 -- The UK risks falling behind other countries on the launch of 5G technology unless a new government makes vital changes to support the rollout of new telecom infrastructure, said Marc Allera, the CEO of UK mobile operator EE.
Addressing attendees at today's TechXLR8 event in London, Allera urged policymakers to remove the "barriers to mobile infrastructure deployment" that have bedeviled the deployment of 4G technology.
A subsidiary of UK fixed-line incumbent BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), EE is struggling to add up to 500 new mobile sites to its footprint to improve services for customers, said Allera.
"We are rolling out new sites… it has been 15 years since an operator has done that and I'm finding it too hard," he told conference attendees.
"We need regulation and support to speed up planning and make it easier to access sites," Allera explained. "We experience landowners who charge ransom rents which makes it hard to provide connectivity. We are grappling with things that the gas and electricity sectors don't have to."
Allera said the forthcoming rollout of 5G technology might force EE to build "thousands of additional masts" to support demand for higher-speed connectivity.
"You think about the complexities of planning regulations," he said. "It is going to need a framework and policies that make it easier."
The UK's biggest mobile operator now claims to cover about 80% of the population with its 4G network, but the country was the 45th in the world to launch the technology when EE first switched on services in October 2012, according to Allera, lagging nations such as Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"Do we want to be 45th in the world to launch 5G or give ourselves a chance to be first and best?" he said. "That is what the UK deserves and it is vital it has the right policy and regulation that will enable and not stall innovation and investment in network infrastructure."
While operators in parts of North America and Asia have announced bullish plans for the commercial introduction of 5G services, most European service providers, including EE, have said little about their 5G intentions.
That has fueled concern that Europe is already falling behind other parts of the world on 5G. (See Nokia CTO 'Not Optimistic' About 5G in Europe.)
But Allera hinted at the likelihood of a 5G launch in 2020 amid soaring demand for data services. "Data growth … will reach a point in 2020 where it will need 5G because customers are spending more time on the network with new applications and we'll need a more consistent connection," he said.
Asked about the specific applications that would need 5G connections, he cited remote surgery and autonomous vehicles.
Healthcare professionals reckon 5G's low-latency capabilities would allow them to use robotics to perform surgery on patients in other cities and countries. The same capabilities could make autonomous vehicles much safer by delivering information about road accidents and other potential hazards in real time. (See Does Ericsson's 5G-for-Healthcare Biz Case Need Surgery?.)
Allera also revealed that EE would look to use 3.5GHz spectrum, which the UK regulator plans to auction in the coming months, to support its initial rollout of 5G networks.
He also sees a role for 5G as a fixed wireless access (FWA) technology in parts of the country that have proven hard to connect to fixed-line broadband networks.
"It could be an interesting solution for the final few percent and that is something we are looking at and trialing at the moment," he said.
The FWA use case has received lots of attention in the North American market, where US telco giant Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) plans to introduce an FWA-based 5G service this year or next.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading