Mobile signal
4G or not 4G? Britain's digital infrastructure is so poor that it is handicapping business iStock

The government needs to improve Britain's mobile data infrastructure or risk being left behind in the digital economy, a new report has warned.

Britain is currently ranked 54th in the world for 4G access, with the typical user being able to access the service only 53% of the time – worse than countries such as Albania and Romania.

In a report released by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) on Wednesday (14 November), the watchdog said that not only must the 4G infrastructure be improved, but Britain must develop a plan to be the world leader in 5G.

"5G is the future," the NIC chair, Lord Adonis, said. "Ultra-fast, and ultra-reliable: it has the potential to change our lives and our economy in ways we cannot even imagine today. But the UK is currently languishing in the digital slow lane.

"Britain is 54th in the world for 4G coverage, and the typical user can only access 4G barely half of the time. Our 4G network is worse than Romania, Albania, Panama and Peru.

"Our roads and railways can feel like digital deserts and even our city centres are plagued by 'not spots' where connectivity is impossible. That isn't just frustrating — it is increasingly holding British business back as more and more of our economy requires a connected workforce.

"5G offers us a chance to start again and get ahead. If the government acts now we can ensure our major transport networks and urban centres are 5G-ready in time to give British industry every chance to lead the world in exploiting its applications."

The NIC has made a number of recommendations to the government for consideration, including creating a cabinet minister for digital infrastructure and laying out a plan to have connectivity on all major railways and motorways.

It recommends that the government should work with local councils to facilitate deployment, and Ofcom, the country's telecoms watchdog, should develop a set of metrics to track the progress towards these goals.

Lord Adonis added: "The existing system does not provide the level of coverage we will need in our connected future.

"We need a new universal service obligation which ensures that the mobile essentials – like text, talk and data – are available to us wherever we need them.

"From connected vehicles to the internet of things, 5G will support a whole new way of communicating and doing business. The UK must not be left behind."