The UK’s four largest mobile operators — EE, Vodafone, Three UK and O2 — have launched 5G technologies in the UK’s main cities, as well as in a number of small and medium-sized cities, writes CATHERINE SBEGLIA.
In September 2020, Point Topic and Think broadband conducted speed tests on each of the operator’s 5G networks and found that the UK’s 5G speeds are nearly four times faster than 4G, but are not quite what UK regulator Ofcom promised they would be because of the limited spectrum availability.
In order to address this limitation, Ofcom announced planned to hold a 5G spectrum auction in January 2021 for the 700 MHz and 3.6 GHz to 3.8 GHz frequency bands, but those plans ended up being postponed until March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The auction is set to begin this week.
The auction, according to Ofcom, will lead to an 18 per cent increase in the region’s mobile capacity, and therefore, will improve mobile broadband and boost 5G deployment, and with it, 5G speeds.
Point Topic and Thinkbroadband also compared the speeds achieved on each operator’s network, concluding that while EE had the top speeds and O2 had the slowest, the maximum 5G speeds for all for operators varied by location and they each stood out in different cities. Vodafone, for instance, had more impressive speed than its rivals in London, O2 was fastest outside of Glasgow, while Three proved to be faster than the rest in Walsall and EE hit its highest speed in Paisley.
Following the news of the auction delay, a spokesperson from BT, which owns EE, told Mobile World Live that the carrier understands Ofcom’s reasoning, but is “disappointed” as the release of spectrum remains “central to the future rollout [of]5G.”
EE first launched 5G services in the UK in May 2019, making it the first operator to do so. Since then, it has expanded to 125 towns and cities across the region. In the last 12 months, alone, EE has also more than doubled its amount of 5G sites in key cities such as Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
The non-standalone 5G New Radio deployment launch, according to the operator, is the first phase of the overall 5G rollout. The second phase, beginning in 2022, will introduce the full 5G core network, enhanced device chipset capabilities, and increased availability of 5G-ready spectrum. There will then be a third phase the following year in which the operator will introduce Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), network slicing and multi-gigabit-per-second speeds to enable This phase of critical applications like real-time traffic management of fleets of autonomous vehicles and massive sensor networks.
According to Vodafone’s website, the operator has launched 5G in 100 U.K. markets and in an additional 193 markets around Europe. When the carrier first launched next-generation services in July of 2019, it did so in parts of Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Glasgow.
Like, EE, the carrier is actively working towards transitioning its current network to a SA 5G one and teamed up with a number of partners including Ericsson, MediaTek, OPPO and Qualcomm as part of this plan. Last year, almost exactly a year after its initial launch, Vodafone showcased its SA 5G network, built for Coventry University, claiming that it was the first live SA 5G deployment in the country.
Coventry University will use the new 5G network to trial virtual reality learning technologies to support training for student nurses and allied health professionals.
Vodafone UK’s Chief Technology Officer Scott Petty called the deployment “a landmark in [Vodafone’s] 5G journey.”
“5G today is all about capacity and increased speeds. It’s giving people the best mobile experience ever,” said Petty, “but it’s only the tip of the iceberg of what 5G can do. With this new live network, we’re demonstrating the future potential of 5G and how it will be so valuable to the UK economy.”
Three initially launched 5G home services in the UK in August 2019 in parts of London, followed by the simultaneous deployment of 5G services in 66 towns and cities around the UK in February of 2020, allowing it to deliver more 5G coverage than many of its rivals, despite its late start.
Now, Three has brought 5G to 1,250 sites in 193 towns and cities, with a primary focus on consumer-centric applications. The operator’s 5G home broadband has also seen significant growth, with 1.6M households now covered.
However, the operator has stated that 2021 is the year it will ramp up its offerings for business customers, specifically, and in order to make this a reality, has begun work with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), which will manage the configuration of a new core next-generation mobile network, and ensure it integrates correctly with the 5G radio access network. The business offering is expected to hit the market in the second half of 2021.
Three currently has approximately 10 million subscribers in the UK.
As of January 2020, O2, owned by Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica, said that its nationwide 5G network now reaches 150 towns and cities across the UK, with recent deployments occurring in Bournemouth, Cheltenham, Doncaster and Southampton, while it has significantly increased its 5G coverage footprint in bigger cities such as London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester.
O2 first launched its 5G network in the UK in October 2019. O2’s 5G network was initially available in certain areas of Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London, Slough and Leeds. The carrier said that the initial focus for its 5G network was on highly populated areas including railway stations, shopping centers and sports stadiums.
In May of 2020, Liberty Global and Telefonica reached an agreement to merge their UK operations in a 50-50 joint venture. This move brings together O2 with cable operator Virgin Media and its MVNO Virgin Mobile. Liberty Global and Telefonica previously said that the transaction is expected to close by mid-2021 and is subject to regulatory approvals.
O2 is working with Ericsson and Nokia on its 5G network.