The UK needs to “go faster” in rolling out its 5G network to boost its position on the “global stage”, the UK and Ireland CEO of telecommunications company Ericsson has said.

In an exclusive interview with Verdict and the first since taking the role in February, Katherine Ainley said her priority is to deliver the rollout of the next generation of wireless technology and convincing businesses and consumers of its advantages. That involves dispelling misinformation peddled by more than a few conspiracy theorists.

“It’s more than just infrastructure – it’s how you use it,” Ainley said.

The former BT executive joined the Swedish telco at a time when it aims to upgrade 200,000 of its UK network sites by 2024.

“We’ve all got to be super-focused on getting 5G out as fast as we can,” she said. “And it’s not that straightforward. It’s an industry-wide and government-wide issue to work together to get this network out. Because the sum of getting 5G out faster is the UK and Ireland gets put in a better position on the global stage.”

Some of the obstacles to that are securing access rights, planning permission and permits.

“If we look at rolling out 5G it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do this massive step change in connectivity. That’s super exciting for me.”

5G key to UK’s pandemic recovery

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ainley believes 5G has a crucial role to play in the UK’s pandemic recovery.

She said the increased demands on networks from remote working has “accelerated a trend that was already there”. According to Ericsson figures, lockdowns caused a 20-50% increase in all data traffic, most of which was absorbed by fixed residential broadband networks.

Now that people have grown used to running multiple video calls on one internet connection, they will expect that to continue while out and about with lockdown restrictions lifted, Ainley said.

“That won’t happen on 4G anywhere near the level of quality that people have got used to. So I think 5G is absolutely critical to that from a consumer perspective.”

People moving out of cities are now going to expect faster connectivity – an expectation that would have taken “longer” without the pandemic.

“I think [5G] is going to be really critical and it’s just come at the right time,” she added.

Ainley believes that there will be an uptick in businesses adopting 5G over the next “months to a year” as they notice other organisations benefiting.

Businesses are already using private 5G networks to improve efficiencies in smart factories, mining and in ports.

Boiler manufacturer Worcester Bosch, for example, has launched a 5G factory using Ericsson infrastructure managed by BT. The Worcestershire 5G Consortium, under which Worcester Bosch is trialling the technology, claims the reduced latency for its real-time sensors has already improved efficiencies by as much as 2%.

But it is the 5G use cases that “we don’t know about” yet that Ainley believes will be the most life-changing.

“I think you’ll see this happen in a few sectors and then it will begin to snowball across [industries],” she said. “People will see what has happened before at Worcester Bosch, various ports, Belfast harbour and it will start that chain of thinking. I think particularly as people are going back to the office and going ‘well how can we now change our working?’”

Ainley also anticipates the improved connectivity of 5G to help make habits formed during the pandemic permanent, such as reduced business travel.

“If you manage a business and you’re an enterprise, and you’re suddenly about to have this travel bill re-emerge at potentially millions or hundreds of millions of pounds per year, you’d be mad to not be thinking how can I reduce that,” she explained.

Taking the reins during pandemic

During her switch from BT Ainley didn’t meet anyone face to face because of the pandemic. Since joining Ericsson she’s only been into the office once. How has she found taking the reins almost entirely virtually?

“I think there are silver linings to joining during the pandemic,” she said. “You get to be very focused in what you do and who you meet, particularly joining a global company. You meet the people that you need to and where they are makes no difference, which is kind of an interesting reflection as you look forward to how the world is going to be.”

She added: “I think it would have been really different if I’d had joined in a more physical environment.”

Ainley says it would have been much more difficult making the transition had it been early on in the pandemic, but now people have got used to it. However, it is harder to build relationships over Zoom compared to face-to-face.

“It’s not impossible, but you’re not doing it day-to-day which you would perhaps have done two years ago.”

“It would be great to go to the pub with everyone,” she added.

Globally, Ericsson’s plan is for office-based employees to “predominantly” work from home until the end of the year while conducting regular reviews.

The offices are open for those who wish to come in, while field staff have been out throughout much of the pandemic.

“We’ve seen a small uptick of people wanting to come into the office,” she said.

Ericsson UK and Ireland had a “flexible” working model before the pandemic, in which staff many staff came in two or three days per week. Ainley anticipates that continuing after.

“Generally, when you look at telcos and technology firms they’re probably a bit further ahead in [working from home], so I think it’s made that transition much easier.”

5G conspiracy attacks “unacceptable”

Unlike many other sectors, Ericsson said it has been unaffected by supply chain problems and the global semiconductor shortage stemming from the pandemic and market demands.

But one way that the pandemic did impact Ericsson and other telecommunication providers was the surge in the conspiracy theories that 5G caused Covid-19.

This led to telco engineers being abused while installing and maintaining equipment across the UK and Europe. Masts in cities such as Birmingham and Liverpool were also set alight.

This activity “peaked last year” and while there is still the occasional incident it is nowhere near at the same scale as last year, Ainley said, adding that the attacks were “absolutely unacceptable”.

Ainley added that the industry as a whole “deserves lots of credit for how it’s dealt with the pandemic” for “keeping the country connected”.

There are more than 1.5 million homes in the UK without internet connectivity, a problem that Ericsson has a key role in solving.

She also believes 5G can be the solution to some rural areas’ connectivity issues and says it’s going to need a “mix of everything”.

Ainley is focused on delivering the rollout of 5G “as fast as we can and make sure the UK is in the best place that we possibly can be in”.

“We need to go faster.”