Derek McManus is Chief Operating Officer of O2.

With Brexit dominating so much political and media airtime at the moment, it is unsurprising that less attention is paid to long-term economic issues like the rollout of 5G.

But away from the Westminster bubble, this is an important conversation that is being had every day between local government at city level – not least the new generation of city mayors elected last year – and mobile providers like O2.

5G and building connectivity may not be quite as headline grabbing as Brexit, but it will arguably play just as important a role in how our country develops over the next few decades.

Our own report, ‘The value of 5G for our cities and communities’, shows 5G has the potential to transform our cities and communities – driving improvements in crucial infrastructure from transport to telehealth and helping boost our cities’ productivity savings by £6 billion, as well as cutting household bills by £450 per year.

Longer term, according to the Future Connectivity Challenge Group, the UK’s leadership in 5G could result in the opportunity to create £173 billion of incremental UK GDP growth over a ten-year period from 2020 to 2030

This is all tremendously exciting. But the path is not guaranteed. We won’t get 5G built unless national planning laws support it, city and local government pulls the levers to implement it – and mobile operators put in the necessary investment to make the most of it.

With countries like South Korea, China, and the United States powering ahead, we will only maintain our competitiveness on the global stage if we all pull together in the same direction.

O2 is playing its part and will look to do more in the months and years ahead. We are currently testing 5G at the O2 Arena by bringing to life this new technology for our customers, consumers and businesses alike – and have plans for further testbeds across the UK in the coming months.

We are in the process of rolling out the small cells that will lay the foundations for our customers to enjoy 5G in places big and small, up and down the UK.

We are working constructively with city leaders in a number of areas to help them realise their ambitions for 5G. There are a number of brilliant examples of best practice that can be seen from Aberdeen, where we installed the UK’s first fibre-connected small cell network in 2017, to the City of London, where we have already rolled out 1,400 small cells in partnership with Cisco, with plans to deploy 300 more in collaboration with Arqiva this year.

More can be done on all sides though. That is why we have worked with independent think tank Centre for Cities to draw up a blueprint on how together we can make further progress, drawing on examples of what is currently working best. The report ‘Delivering Change’, published today, makes a number of practical recommendations for the various decision makers involved in the building of 5G.

On a national level it argues that planning laws could be made more straightforward. The upcoming new National Planning Policy Framework should include a requirement for the provision of high quality digital infrastructure – mobile and fixed – to be pre-installed in all new developments like other utilities are. The report also makes the case for reviewing the current Electronic Communications Code, introduced in December 2017, after 12 months to make sure that the guidance provided to local authorities is clear.

But Government can afford to be even more radical in its approach. Building from the report, there is also a debate to be had on what other national incentives can be offered for installing 5G.

The future of business rates is, for example, a topic of hot political conversation and there may be a case in future years for Government to target existing reliefs on firms who take the decision to install 5G ahead of the curve.

We would also like to see the Government setting up a challenge fund so people and organisations can apply to enjoy a reduction in rent in return for opening up their homes and land in order to improve digital connectivity in their local area. After all, landlords literally ‘hold the key’ to unlocking access to ultrafast connectivity for the UK.

The work with Centre for Cities also offers some constructive suggestions to those involved in city government and local authorities more widely. Recommendations include setting out clear city-wide development plans so investors have a clearer idea of where 5G will go; mapping all existing fibre assets such as those in CCTV and traffic lights so that the cost of rolling out fibre is reduced; and integrating readiness for 5G when carrying out street works such as renewing street lamps and resurfacing roads.

None of these recommendations are pie-in-the sky abstract musings, but sensible concrete steps that can be taken now to pave the way. There is obviously much to digest in the report and there will be debate about some of the specific policy recommendations. That should be the case.

The important thing is that the benefits of 5G – and the policy decisions that are needed to make it a reality – are put up the agenda for the benefit of everyone in the UK. Mobile motors our modern world, and 5G has even more potential to move Britain forward. It must be prioritised today.

If you would like to read the full report, you can find it here.

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