Imagine you are in a jam-packed sports stadium, and everyone in the 25,000 crowd has a modern mobile-phone ready to video the action. The event begins, and each of you starts uploading pictures and sound to whichever website address you choose. The world’s billions along with your loved ones all watch, live – because they can.
Sounds crazy? Maybe, but this reflects the potential of 5G, or mobile superfast broadband. It is perhaps the most transformative revolution in mobile technology since…well, since the revolution itself began. Think of it this way: with 3G your mobile device locked on to a single mast – clever but, with hindsight, restrictive. With 4G in its latest evolution, your device uses two or three masts. With 5G it could be 20, 30 or even 50 – each of them located within lamp-posts, flagpoles, church towers, you name it.
The pace of such transformation makes you realise that being a first-mover these days does not carry much of an advantage when another technology can overtake the one you’ve embraced. Yet Guernsey has announced that it wants to be an “early adopter” and a “test-bed” for 5G. Revealing this last week, the island’s chief information officer said that talks would soon begin with the local telecoms companies and the regulator.
The details of the strategy have not yet been published, but the three companies – Sure, JT and Airtel-Vodafone – and the Channel Islands Competition and Regulatory Authority (Cicra) are now fully aware of the ambition. And that ambition is a bit of a surprise, for several reasons.
One is the track record. In telecoms, the embarrassment over selling the old Guernsey Telecom at too cheap a price many years ago to Cable & Wireless (now Sure) still rankles for many. In other areas, notable waste disposal, it has become apparent that executing big projects at a reasonable cost is not exactly a forte of the Guernsey States.
This points to a second concern. On the one hand we have a big States commitment to a complex goal; on the other, a group of important entities who must make it work, technically and in business terms. Yet formal talks are still to begin.
Guernsey residents are entitled to be bemused. They recall that the three companies started out erecting separate masts for their existing mobile networks – though happily 70% of masts are now shared. And they have watched the same roads being dug to lay optical fibre – prompting them to observe that something must have gone wrong. Just as the UK needs only one track network for all its rail operators, surely our small island could have managed with one mobile infrastructure and one fibre network?
One must hope, therefore, that it will possible to persuade the companies to work together within a single 5G infrastructure allowing environmental and cost benefits (covering electricity consumption, masts and so forth) which then yield reduced costs to the consumer. In that event, none will be able to outdo the others on the basis of speed or accessibility. And although Cicra will by definition have to be involved as well, it will simply ensure that the companies compete by price, customer service and brand recognition.
The third big question which will need answering is one that concerns us all. Who pays? The States has already included digital connectivity in its Medium Term Financial Plan as a capital project in its “large plus grow” category – at an estimated cost of £40 million.
Likewise, in April 2017, an official “Digital Sector Strategic Framework” document was produced saying that Guernsey aspires by 2026 to be “the location of choice for a diverse range of low footprint, high value digital businesses, maximising economic growth and opportunity for the island”. One of the high-level policy aims was to “deliver the next generation of digital infrastructure” and bring access for commercial premises to “super-fast connectivity within five years” at competitive cost.
The crunch issue, however, is whether Guernsey really can go it alone with such a venture. Two questions beg themselves. One, shouldn’t the island be attracting a lead investor from outside with a long-term outlook such as an infrastructure or tech group to take this forward? Second, shouldn’t the island be dovetailing its ambitious plans with similar efforts on the mainland or elsewhere?
A large part of the answer to many of these concerns is to be found in the Economic Vision document produced for the Committee for Economic Development at the end of 2017. Though not yet formally approved because of the subsequent ructions within that committee, the document stated: “The committee will propose that Guernsey moves to a single network provider for 5G infrastructure, thereby reducing overall costs to telecommunications companies and eventually the consumer, whilst ensuring multiple service providers can provide a competitive market. It is likely that the States will provide physical and network resources to this operator in order to ensure the roll-out of this network and in return will take a minority stake in this provider of wholesale services.”
That the island needs such investment is without doubt. Successful economies are the ones which generally invest well in their infrastructure, be it transportation, quality of cities or technology infrastructure. Guernsey is no different, and needs to embrace the digital enablement which 5G will provide its people and businesses.
This is because we are not just talking about individual and corporate access to the world wide web. With 5G we are talking about an age in which information in the form of data is as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. We will have driverless cars and intelligent robots, systems in houses and offices (air conditioners, thermostats, consumer electronics) which can be instructed and monitored remotely, and subscriptions, billing and other payments done from anywhere.
We know already that larger businesses will generally require high-speed, high-capacity fibre at a reasonable price in the next 10 years. We also know that in mobile, 5G will require micro transmission sites to sit alongside the existing mast infrastructure, requiring greater financing and a different approach for deployment.
Although the Vision Document makes it clear that the States has already involved the companies and Cicra in its discussions, it is far too early to say how much of the cost will fall on the taxpayer, the telecoms companies, the shareholders in an infrastructure investment company or internet users. All we can be sure of is that those involved will need strong prospective returns to make a business case for investing.