The UK telecoms regulator has set a timetable for the launch of 5G services in Britain by 2020, with early trials set to take place as soon as next year.
The technical standards for the new network technology are still being thrashed out but it is expected to bring faster and more reliable mobile broadband for consumers as well as supporting myriad connected devices — from street lights to driverless cars to heart monitors — that make up the “internet of things”.
Countries including South Korea and China are forging ahead with 5G launches that are expected in 2019. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has said he wants the UK to be a world leader in 5G, while the EU has predicted the faster networks will provide an economic boost of €113bn by 2025.
However, some in the industry have questioned whether 5G has been overhyped and whether telecoms companies really have the incentive to spend billions of pounds on new network equipment.
EE, which was the first network to launch 4G, is keen to retain its pioneer position and be first to launch 5G, according to senior sources with knowledge of the situation.
The launch of 4G was delayed after some telecom companies sued the regulator over the spectrum auction process.
For the 5G sale, both Three and O2 want a “spectrum cap” that would limit the power of EE, now owned by BT, and Vodafone. EE already owns 45 per cent of the country’s spectrum and Vodafone has 28 per cent.
The 5G auction was postponed last year, as a result of Three’s attempt to take over O2, a deal that was ultimately blocked.