NEWBURY, UK -- Vodafone UK is in its final run-up to the launch of 5G services, due to hit the market on July 3, and has been sharing its network upgrade progress and future plans with the media.
Here are my key takeaways from a visit to the operator's headquarters in Newbury today.
As previously announced, Vodafone UK plans to launch 5G services on July 3 in seven major cities, with plans to take that to 19 towns and cities across the UK this year. Precise details about price packages will be announced at the time, but the operator has already revealed it will launch with devices from two vendors, Samsung and Xiaomi. (See Vodafone UK Unveils 5G Plans.)
Vodafone UK has modernized 16,000 of its 18,000 base stations in preparation for a more software-oriented, flexible, disaggregated 5G future and has, it claims, spent £2 billion ($2.54 billion) on that modernization program. It's still working on the upgrade of 2,000 base stations that are taking longer to access (depending on the site owner) and address. It has already noted that it plans to build its 5G radio access network using technology from Ericsson and Huawei. Its 5G core technology will be supplied by Cisco.
Vodafone is not currently commenting on the record about the position with regards to Huawei. It has previously stated that it hopes it can continue to use Huawei as a supplier in the radio access network and that any ban or restriction on being able to use the Chinese vendor's technology would cost a lot of money and set the UK 5G market back by years. Huawei's RAN technology is in evidence in Newbury -- its millimeter wave antenna technology is deployed for testing and trialing on the Vodafone campus, alongside that of Ericsson. Speed tests done today with a Xiaomi 5G handset hit download data rates of 960 Mbit/s peak using 3.4GHz band spectrum, though the average over the course of five minutes was lower (though still enviable, at up to 600 Mbit/s). Those speeds, of course, are possible in a small 5G sector with only other test users sharing the capacity.
The operator is bullish about its 5G architecture. As well as the RAN, it has also been investing in its transport and core network capabilities (it calls its optical transport network "Redstream"). Vodafone UK CTO Scott Petty noted it has focused on plans to introduce "cloud-native" virtualized functions that can run on x86 servers in a distributed architecture "that will look more like IT" than communications networks. But such a move requires new skills, different telemetry tools than used in the past -- telemetry is one of those seemingly dull but absolutely critical areas of focus for next-gen network strategists -- and the kind of network automation that comes from the deployment of software-defined networking (SDN) tools.
The operator is seeking to leverage its modernized transport network to pitch SD-WAN services to enterprises with a hybrid offer that can use Vodafone's packet network and the public Internet when appropriate. It is using SD-WAN technology from Juniper and Cisco. The UK operator has long had an enterprise services division and has been offering SD-WAN services for a while, but now sees "greater urgency" among enterprises that are reconsidering their MPLS connectivity, noted Petty. To that end it has launched a free consultancy service for UK businesses that are looking to explore the potential of SD-WAN. This is a no-brainer for Vodafone, which is targeting BT's base of enterprise connectivity services: BT, of course, also has a SD-WAN offer.
5G small cell research is underway at Vodafone: The operator believes that with their initial focus on 5G macro RAN developments, the main equipment vendor can now focus more on small cell capabilities, which will certainly come in handy but aren't necessary for a decent 5G service launch, noted Petty. The operator is also looking at the potential of fixed wireless access using 5G as an alternative to fiber-to-the-home broadband, where the 5G connection would cover only a short distance from a local node at the end of a fiber line. The operator's recently-appointed Head of Networks, Andrea Donà, said the operator was figuring out the best mix of networks to meet its customers' needs, noting that WiFi would also play a part in its 5G strategy. Filled with optimism, he stated: "If we get 5G right, we shouldn't need another G." He may well be disappointed when 6G becomes the big buzz topic at MWC 2021…
There is a great deal still to be done, though. Vodafone is testing various small cell form factors on its Newbury campus -- one housed in a street manhole, one for a traditional UK phone box -- and sees this technology coming into play from vendors in the next 12-18 months. The Ericsson circular manhole small cell device being tested in Newbury has a reach of about 150 meters and can deliver data download speeds of up to 120 Mbit/s over 4G/LTE. But Petty is insistent that Vodafone UK can launch a very good 5G service with its existing macro base station footprint.
Vodafone UK's Pete Rodriquez ponders his small cell manhole.
Vodafone UK is testing edge computing capabilities at its Digital Innovation Hub in Manchester, but considerations about introducing edge compute into the live network is "years away," stated "5G Pete" Rodriguez, senior manager of UK 5G Programme Delivery at Vodafone.