The future influx of connected services like autonomous cars and smart cities will place intense demands on wireless networks. The average autonomous car, for example, is expected to generate approximately 4,000 GB of data for every one hour of driving. In the meantime, 4G broadband in the home is becoming a popular alternative for UK consumers with speeds comparable to wired broadband. Reliance on 4G and soon 5G is only expected to increase, so how are operators and regulators preparing for this? What else needs to be done to ensure consumer expectations are met quickly and within reasonable public and private sector budgets?

Today’s consumer likely isn’t aware of the quiet technological revolution that is taking place in the networks their smartphones use. The introduction of VoLTE and WiFi calling have created a step change for smartphones users as they can increasingly move seamlessly between 4G and WiFi networks and experience high data speeds and superior voice quality on both technologies. Further, operators have been deploying LTE-A features such as carrier aggregation to improve network capacity and ultimately customer experience.

Although networks are improving, operators are under a constant pressure to provide consumers with fast and reliable mobile Internet connection. Unfortunately, whether in the UK or US, operators’ efforts to develop infrastructure and provide widespread, robust coverage are challenged by a common set of issues: protracted government approval processes and lengthy landowner negotiations as well as the simple economics of serving certain underpopulated or hard-to-reach areas. However, this is may be changing as operators are finding more creative ways to meet their end goal of eliminating signal ‘blackspots’ as well as preparing for an effective roll out of 5G; plus some government authorities are attempting to streamline their involvement while making it more effective.

For example, in the US, several states have passed legislation to improve and speed up the approval process for wireless infrastructure deployments; and in Florida, the state has introduced a bill to help operators place “small cells” on public facilities such as a utility poles.  Meanwhile, in the UK, O2 is taking a more unique approach to providing high speed mobile Internet access in the City of London. The operator is installing ‘smart cells’ which use a 4G backhaul to power a free-to-access WiFi network. This raises two interesting points for O2, as currently, it creates a device and operator agnostic way for consumers to access O2’s 4G network. The firm has also said that it will be able to upgrade this network to a 5G backhaul in the future, which could be an effective way to promote the benefits of 5G to consumers. Instead of waiting to purchase a 5G-ready device to experience the next generation of wireless networks, British users can bring a WiFi-enabled device to the City of London and try it out for themselves. Most modern smartphones are capable of handling much faster Internet speeds than those currently available on the UK’s mobile networks.

In order for the UK to be seen as a tech innovator, its ability to deliver superfast Internet, wherever the connection is needed, will be crucial. Private sector companies like O2 are already demonstrating intent to facilitate widespread urban 4G and 5G coverage, so the government needs to do its part by encouraging infrastructure investment through nonprescriptive legislation (similar to what is occurring in many states in the US). This would in turn make it easier for operators to install their own infrastructure to improve network access in urban areas.  Granted, it is an expensive task, but if the country is to compete as a global power in connectivity, operators and other parties need to work together to build networks to the necessary standards. Rigorous network benchmarking will also be crucial to ensure that users are getting fast and reliable connectivity at all times. GWS has been working with operators and government institutions for over 20 years to support these efforts and will continue to do so at such a pivotal time in the US and UK’s mobile Internet journey.