Sluggish 5G roll-outs are costing British small businesses billions

Worker is installing 5G Telecommunication Base Station
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Small and medium businesses (SMBs) are missing out on up to £8.6 billion a year in productivity savings because of the slow roll-out of standalone 5G, according to research from Vodafone.

In a new report, the telecoms firm said the UK is on course to be the fifth most attractive place in Europe for SMEs to use technology to scale, behind Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands - but could jump to second place if it accelerated the roll out of 5G.

"Over 16 million people in the UK work for small and medium sized businesses. They are the bedrock of our economy. As this research shows we need to help them use technology to grow even faster," said Kevin Hollinrake MP, minister for enterprise, markets and small business.

"That involves providing people with the necessary skills to understand how to make the most of innovative technologies such as AI. It also means ensuring we have first class digital infrastructure including gigabit broadband and standalone 5G rolled out across every part of the UK so that every business can benefit from faster speeds and a more reliable network."

The report gives the example of small agricultural businesses, which it said could see the average worker save over three weeks of their time by utilizing 5G standalone-enabled technologies.

Deploying 5G Standalone at speed and accelerating the development of the technology it enables would lead to a collective saving of over 37.7 million working hours a year across the sector, Vodafone said. 

Long-term, this could deliver £112 million in annual productivity savings and enable SMBs to reinvest and drive business growth. 

Similarly, more than two million employees in the retail sector could save over 45.3 million working hours a year by deploying 5G standalone-enabled technologies such as IoT stock maintenance systems. This, it said, could contribute to productivity savings of £1.85 billion a year.

Other industries that would particularly benefit include science, technology and professional services, with savings of £1.67 billion; construction, with a £1.28 billion saving; and manufacturing, with a figure of £854 million.

Robust 5G connectivity is critical for SMBs

Tina McKenzie, policy and advocacy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said strong a reliable mobile connectivity is "essential for small businesses to thrive", yet many still encounter significant problems in this regard. 

"We often hear that unreliable mobile connectivity remains a big obstacle for small firms and the self-employed, and is particularly disrupting for productivity in rural areas," she said.


"As technology develops, the need for a decent connection is even more vital. Rolling out standalone 5G to all areas of the country quickly and efficiently will help small firms stay at the forefront of technological innovation, improving work rate as well as ensuring the UK remains a great place to start and run a business."

According to OpenSignal, the UK ranks last among G7 countries for average 5G download speeds, while research by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) shows that nearly half of small businesses in rural areas experience unreliable data connectivity.

"It is essential that the UK seizes the opportunity to improve 5G networks to create a first-class environment for SMEs to grow and scale," said Emma Jones, CEO of Enterprise Nation.

Emma Woollacott

Emma Woollacott is a freelance journalist writing for publications including the BBC, Private Eye, Forbes, Raconteur and specialist technology titles.