UK mobile networks are showing real improvement but the next challenges are already here
For all developed nations, competitiveness is going to depend heavily on super-fast 5G connectivity, writes Hakan Ekmen, the chief executive of P3 communications.
With a host of 5G trials underway in the UK, including those in Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton, it is vital that government, regulators and mobile operators gain full understanding of the current state of connectivity. Only through detailed and comprehensive insights into what connectivity is like on the ground can they understand whether the country has the necessary foundations for the connected society and future prosperity.
According to GSMA, the UK is among the top ten nations in the world for mobile internet connectivity. Rigorous testing last year which covered more than 26% of the UK population in 22 cities, 35 towns and along 7,300 miles of major roads and the rail network, confirmed that the overall picture is good, but that significant challenges are emerging.
The tests covered voice, data, 4G services and real-world user-download speeds along with a crowd-sourced assessment of service availability. EE emerged as the top performer against the benchmarks, followed respectively by Vodafone, Three and O2.
The overall improvements in year-on-year performance by the networks for voice calls were driven by the introduction of Voice over LTE (VoLTE) by all UK mobile operators. VoLTE transmits voice calls as data packets over a 4G connection, avoiding circuit-switched fallback to lower quality 3G. VoLTE supports better audio codecs providing operators with the opportunity to deliver higher speech quality to their customers. This is good news for customers of all the UK networks.
Wider 4G rollout throughout UK has also enabled higher coverage and faster data connections especially with wider use of carrier aggregation by the operators. The testing also revealed, however, that outside cities, towns and main roads there are still opportunities for improvement. This was most obvious in the testing along rail routes, which was included this year for the first time since there is a real focus on train connectivity from government and the train companies. While EE had the best results on trains it is fair to say that all four operators struggle.
The UK has improved and can realistically set its sights on matching top performers such as Switzerland and the Netherlands who are already ahead in providing connectivity to rural areas and rail networks. Continued investment to solve coverage gaps and systematic issues affecting services will achieve this. We can also expect to see the UK government putting pressure on the mobile operators to boost their performance in rural areas and on rail routes, particularly along the huge HS2 rail project, which will initially link London and the Midlands. The testing used crowd-sourced data as well as drive testing to assess coverage nationwide, but the crowd data is also used as a tool to fix coverage gaps.
The obstacles to wider implementation of 5G will have to be addressed through technology and the establishment of viable new business cases to increase revenue, providing incentives for operators. The UK’s mobile networks will also have to focus more intensively on end-user communication, as the first steps towards 5G will inevitably focus on enterprise customers and campus solutions.
In the mean time we will see the operators continuously upgrading their 4G networks to provide high end-to-end performance, driven by the ever-increasing demand for faster, more diverse data services. The regulator Ofcom’s 2018 Communications Market Report points to changing patterns of use such as the switch to internet-based messaging from phones.
Expectations among consumers and businesses are rising. Data-speeds drove up average monthly data use per mobile SIM, by more than 40% in the year to June 2017, for example.
4G coverage will remain a hot topic. All four main UK networks are investing heavily toexpand 4G coverage but have different roll-out strategies which may require a higher level of coordination by government. Fortunately, the introduction of virtualised core networks will provide higher flexibility, promote diversity, and promise security and increased manageability. Alongside this we will see a trend towards fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) aiming for seamless connectivity between fixed and wireless telecommunications networks.
Generally speaking, testing shows the UK has very good connectivity while the governing bodies are working hard to ensure that network operators fill in the gaps in existing 4G coverage and are fully prepared for the 5G future. Filling in the gaps will be essential to future prosperity.