In the recent debate over Britain’s 5G infrastructure, one dog didn’t bark in the night. At no point did anyone dare suggest that, regardless of the supplier, upgrading our mobile networks to 5G might be premature.
In saner parts of the economy, an investment requires something called a ‘use case’ or a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, you need to provide some immediate benefits which will arise as a result of your investment. Anything that can be dressed up as next-generation technology is somehow spared that tedious level of scrutiny. All it takes is for the techno-consulting complex to claim that ‘without this we risk being left behind’ and next thing you know there’s a blank cheque. This indulgence afforded to the technology sector distorts the economy.
As things stand, you can’t even make a phone call or enjoy a reliable 3G signal on the train between Sevenoaks and London Bridge. (That is assuming I can make it to the station with my car intact: even under constant carpet-bombing from the 2nd Air Division, the North Vietnamese Army somehow did a better job of repairing potholes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail than Kent County Council manages on the A25.) So forgive me if I am less than excited at seeing billions of pounds sunk into infrastructure we don’t yet need.
If anyone should be enthusiastic about 5G, it is the South Koreans. There you can use 5G’s low latency to flip rapidly between videos of insanely attractive people performing intricately choreographed dance routines, while simultaneously ordering a home delivery of dolsot bibimbap. Life does not get any better than that. Yet even in Korea the value of 5G seems to be in doubt. Samsung has told investors that it expects its 5G business in South Korea to ‘shrink somewhat compared with last year’. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Jang Dong-gil, a 30-year-old tech worker, and among the first South Koreans to sign up for 5G, is ‘underwhelmed’. ‘I don’t feel the difference.’ On many days, he switches off his 5G service because his connection often drops as his phone pingpongs between 5G and 4G networks.
‘Ah, but it’s not about handsets,’ evangelists claim, ‘5G will enable remote surgery.’ I’m sorry, but before any proctologist of mine gets their tiny hands anywhere near a remote joystick, I’m going to request a fixed-line connection: the last thing I want is someone switching on the microwave in the nurses’ canteen and turning my oscopy into a otomy.
What would be far more valuable for the next five years would be wider rural 4G coverage, not 5G in cities where bandwidth is rarely a problem.
Funnily enough, in the past few years, all the major UK mobile networks have done one thing which hugely improves coverage. Spend ten minutes fiddling about with the settings on the ‘phone’ application on your mobile, and you will find an option called ‘WiFi calling’. Often you’ll find this is switched off. Turn it to ‘on’. Then, next time you’re invited to spend the weekend with friends in Blackspot Cottage, log into their WiFi and you can make and receive mobile calls from a chair via the internet, rather than having to stand on one leg in the middle of a field.
Why did nobody tell me this before, you ask? This, alas, is fairly typical of the engineering mindset, which would rather spend £1,000 on technology than spend £1 on telling people how to use it. The same mentality afflicts the people who devised smart motorways — who spent billions building them without a penny being budgeted to explain to motorists how they worked. But that’s a topic for another column.
Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy UK.