BT to Put 5G at 1,500 Sites in 2019, Beating Vodafone

Iain Morris
11/13/2018

BT mobile subsidiary EE will launch 5G services in 16 UK cities next year as it looks to beat rivals to a commercial rollout of the next-generation technology. (See BT Kicks Off 5G Campaign With Plans for 2019 Launch.)

The operator may hope to gain an advantage from being "first to market" with 5G services; it introduced a 4G commercial offer in 2012 ahead of any other UK operator.

Back then, UK regulatory authorities controversially allowed EE to launch a 4G service over existing 1800MHz spectrum, while rivals were made to wait until a subsequent spectrum auction.

When it comes to 5G, however, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) is in a close race with Vodafone UK to bring 5G services to market.

During a press conference in September, Vodafone revealed its own plans for a 2019 service launch, indicating it would target cities where 5G trials are currently underway as well as rural communities in Cornwall and the Lake District. Vodafone expects to have about 1,000 5G sites in service by 2020. (See Vodafone UK: We'll Be Ready to Launch 5G in Mid-2019.)

Now EE has said it will first launch 5G in the UK's four capital cities of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, as well the major cities of Birmingham and Manchester.

Also due to get a 5G service from EE next year are busy parts of ten other UK cities -- those being Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol.

EE said it would launch with "multiple smartphone partners," without naming names, and market a 5G home router with an external antenna for residential broadband purposes.

The broadband move is a challenge to Three UK, the smallest of the UK's mobile network operators, which laid out its own plans for a 5G-based home broadband service during a press briefing last week. (See Three UK to Go Big on 5G for Home Broadband.)

And while Vodafone is targeting 1,000 sites by 2020, EE aims to have 1,500 upgraded to support 5G services next year. Those sites cover about 15% of the population, it said, but account for as much as 25% of all data traffic.

Relieving congestion on busy 4G networks has become a 5G priority in the immediate absence of more compelling "use cases" with greater potential to spur revenue growth.


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Three UK CEO Dave Dyson last week played down the prospect of any sales boost from a 5G smartphone service. Charging a premium while the technology is not widely available would be difficult, he said, and Three did not charge a premium for its 4G services when they were first introduced.

He also told analysts Three was not desperate to beat its rivals to a 5G launch. "We'll do what we think is the right thing and have trial sites and experience opportunities in flagship stores, but it is not about being first," he said. "It is about doing things that will set us up for longer-term leadership in the 5G environment."

While EE may see the potential for a short-term sales boost from more expensive 5G services, competition is likely to force down prices. Even if EE beats Vodafone to a 5G service launch, it cannot expect to enjoy the luxury of exclusivity for as long as it did in the 4G era.

Of all the UK's mobile network operators, Telefónica subsidiary O2 has had the least to say about its 5G plans so far.

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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