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5G mobile masts bring installation challenges, EE finds

EE has switched on a fixed wireless access network in central London to test elements of its future 5G mobile service, but faced some challenges setting it up

Communications services provider (CSP) EE has been exploring some of the challenges around building a fit-for-purpose 5G mobile network as it switches on nine trial sites around the City and East End of London.

In contrast to the deployment of 4G networks, which was made much easier by being able to repurpose 3G antennae, the enhanced capabilities and vastly increased number of use cases means 5G will rely on brand new equipment.

“Deploying this brand new layer of our EE mobile network is far from straightforward, and this trial has helped us to understand – and learn how to overcome – the significant challenges we’ll face in the coming years,” said Howard Watson, chief technology innovation officer at EE parent BT.

“We’re also learning about the coverage we can achieve with 5G New Radio on our new 3.4GHz spectrum, both indoors and in densely cluttered streets.”

Among some of the issues encountered by EE are the increased weight of the new 5G antennae – up to 50kg, which means that some rooftop sites have needed significant strengthening to accommodate them.

The necessary building upgrades to install this equipment can then cause delays in obtaining planning permission and the need for repeat visits, meaning the network builder must make multiple access requests to property owners.

An additional challenge EE encountered was the need to locate 5G antenna in such a way that they would avoid going above regulated power output levels, as set down by the UK government.

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The trial will now move on to assessing the potential of 5G mobile networks to deliver fixed broadband services – expected to be a key early use case, as many other trials this year have demonstrated.

The nine central London sites are located at Provost Street, City Road, Central Street, Old Street, Cheapside, St Paul’s, Finsbury Circus Garden, Clerkenwell Street and Bartholomew Square, and businesses and consumers in these neighbourhoods are now being invited to join the trial of fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband services.

The FWA trial is in addition to EE’s live indoor network testbed at Canary Wharf, and tests of 5G device functionality, currently ongoing at its lab in Borehamwood, Herts.

The operator said it still aimed to be the UK’s first mobile network to offer consumers and businesses 5G, with a scheduled launch date sometime in 2019.

However, with all four national mobile networks now roughly aligned to the goal of launching the first UK commercial 5G networks in the middle of 2019, it remains entirely possible that any one of EE’s rivals will beat it over the line in spite of the BT-backed organisation’s significant size and market power.

At the end of October 2018, Vodafone switched on a new site in Greater Manchester, claiming its demonstration marked the first time that data traffic had been carried over a live, customer-facing 5G network, while Three, which has a significant advantage in spectrum holdings thanks to the 2017 acquisition of UK Broadband, has just announced it has now spent £2bn on preparing its network for 5G.

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