5G is not the answer, says Intechnology boss Peter Wilkinson

Peter Wilkinson, CEO of Intechnology plc in Harrogate.
Peter Wilkinson, CEO of Intechnology plc in Harrogate.
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5G technology is being widely touted as the Next Big Thing, but serial entrepreneur Peter Wilkinson doesn’t believe a word of it. >>>

It’s never very clear just how much a brand-new technology is going to change the world when it’s first unveiled. It’s probably fair to say that the wheel, the printing press and the home computer have far exceeded even their inventors’ wildest expectations. The umbrella hat and the spork, well, not so much.

So quite what impact 5G will have is still very much up for debate, but there is certainly no shortage of hype. According to its most enthusiastic proponents, 5G – the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications – will disrupt traditional industry structures, fuel the digital revolution and improve quality of life across the board.

Just how it will do that is harder to ascertain – specifics are surprisingly hard to come by – but its most immediate application will be for mobile phones.

Download speeds are forecast to accelerate rapidly, from one gigabit per second (1Gb/s) initially to as much as 10Gb/s eventually, bringing the time it takes to download a full high-definition (HD) film from seven minutes with the current 4G down to just four seconds.

More intriguingly, 5G’s capacity to handle large amounts of data has led to it being hailed by many as the technology that will supercharge the Internet of Things (IoT), heralding a new age when communication technologies, humans and machines will all interact in a coordinated, responsive, super-efficient riot of futuristic living, complete with self-driving cars.

But not everyone’s convinced. Peter Wilkinson is what might fairly be termed a 5G sceptic and his voice carries a lot of weight in the world of tech.

Over the last 25 years he has founded, grown and sold some of the nation’s most pioneering technology companies, including Planet Online, the UK’s first viable business internet service provider (ISP), Freeserve, the first consumer ISP, and Sports Internet, which helped to spawn Skybet.

His latest ‘baby’ is Harrogate-based Intechnology plc, which deploys wifi networks across town and city centres and is developing smart systems to enable more efficient healthcare delivery, among other things.

“I don’t see 5G and the Internet of Things being combined in any way, shape or form,” he says.

“The Internet of Things is really very low amounts of data being pushed around on a very low-level network. Most of the Internet of Things would work on the old TV analogue spectrum, so what IoT’s got to do with 5G, I don’t know.

“I think that’s a complete mish-mash; the two things do not go together at all.”

Mr Wilkinson believes it will be far easier, cheaper and better all round to stick with wifi, an established technology that is still developing.

“Wifi is not a finished, old, dead technology – everybody uses wifi,” he says. “And don’t tell me that 5G’s faster than wifi, because I don’t believe you. The next iteration of wifi, which is imminent, has got smaller packet sizes, so you get more throughput, better-quality voice calls – all the other stuff.

“Everyone’s out there talking about 5G, but who’s talking about wifi?”

But Mr Wilkinson says that the failings of 5G run far deeper than its unsuitability for running the home smartly.

5G uses higher radio frequencies, which are capable of carrying more information at a faster rate, but which are less well suited to carrying information over long distances and can actually be blocked by physical obstacles such as buildings and trees.

To get round this, it relies on lots of smaller transmitters positioned on buildings and street furniture and these will have to be installed by mobile network operators (MNOs).

Their expense – and their very small operating radius – mean that their deployment outside major population centres is very much in doubt, raising the prospect of rural areas being left even further behind than they have been by the treacle-slow rollout of 3G and 4G.

“The biggest problem with 5G is that somebody’s going to have to invest a huge amount of money to deploy it,” says Mr Wilkinson.

“And I’m never going to get 5G in the dale I live in. There’s only five properties in the dale – who’s going to put 5G in there?

“People are not going to make any more cellular calls – cellular calls are on the decline, year on year – so where’s the return on this massive investment for these cellular operators? Data?

“Cellular data is hideously expensive for the user. I saw an ad on TV the other night and they were offering 3Gb of data for £12 a month. Three gigs doesn’t even download you a movie!”

Consultancy firm McKinsey & Company estimates that network costs could double as operators put up prices to recoup their outlay.

“5G is going to be expensive for the user, so it’s not inclusive,” says Mr Wilkinson. “It’s excluding all the people who can’t afford cellular data – who are the people we’re supposed to be trying to include. So the whole thing is flawed.

“But wifi’s free. What would you rather connect to – a very expensive cellular data service or stick with your good old wifi that costs you nothing?”

It should be mentioned that 5G is not yet here. EE, the UK’s biggest MNO, has said it will launch 5G networks in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Manchester this summer, and in 10 other cities, including Hull, Leeds and Sheffield, by the end of the year. The UK’s other major carriers, Three, O2 and Vodafone, also plan to launch 5G before the end of 2019.

The Government has allocated £200m to support 5G tests and trials across the UK and wants the majority of the UK population to have 5G coverage by 2027.

Yet there are no 5G phones currently available, and the first ones are only due to hit the shops towards the end of the year.

Mr Wilkinson is very clear about what should happen in the meantime. He calculates that installing blanket wifi in a large city centre would cost anywhere between five and 10 times less than installing 5G infrastructure, and that’s the kind of bill the Government can and should pay.

“5G has got to be standardised first and then you’ve got the kit to be launched and then marketed. And then it’ll be the MNOs that predominantly have the kit before it filters down to the smaller firms.

“So realistically, I’d be surprised if we saw a deployment that was used by the general public before 2021, 2022.

“So, in that time, how much wifi can the Government get installed? I’m not saying through me – do it through anybody – but every town and city should be wifi-ed up in this country by then.”

Glowing predictions about what 5G will do for the world abound, and Mr Wilkinson’s view appears at odds with the general mood.

And yet, as he points out, of the world’s four biggest tech businesses – Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google – not one of them is investing in 5G, but they are all spending money on wifi.

He offers a damning assessment: “Cellular is a dying technology looking to breathe some life back into itself, but 5G isn’t the answer.

“I don’t think there is an answer to cellular – it’s a bad technology.”

Only time will tell whether it will go the same way as the umbrella hat or the spork.