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EE launches consumer 5G, but experts say no rush to upgrade

EE launched the UK’s first official 5G network this week, but with limited availability and 4G networks improving all the time, industry watchers say there is no big impetus for users to upgrade yet

Mobile network operator EE has officially turned on its 5G mobile network – the UK’s first consumer-facing 5G service – in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, London and Manchester, but with limited service availability and improvements to the potential availability, capacity and speed of 4G networks still in the works, the message from industry observers is that there is no rush to upgrade.

At launch, EE said the first customers to use the network should see an increase in speed of 100-150Mbps, with some likely to be able to break the 1Gbps milestone right away. By comparison, the fastest speed possible over 4G on its launch day seven years ago was 50Mbps.

Early adopters will also be able to choose from a wider-than-expected range of devices, including smartphones from LG, OnePlus, Oppo and Samsung, although Huawei devices have been dropped over concerns arising from the US ban on the supplier, which has caused Google to drop it from the Android ecosystem. However, EE will include a non-Android Huawei home broadband router in its 5G line-up.

The operator has also launched new 5G plans, including swappable benefits – two per customer – that include packages with BT Sport access, data passes for gaming, music or video, and international roaming.

EE formally switched on the network in London on the evening of Wednesday 29 May with a 5G-powered concert from platinum-selling artist Stormzy on the banks of the River Thames. Audiences in the other launch cities were able to watch via virtual reality (VR) headsets.

“Big up EE, thank you for letting me launch your 5G network in the UK,” said Stormzy. “Tonight was sick – I’m honoured to be part of history.”

Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer business, said: “We wanted to mark the arrival of the UK’s first 5G network with something spectacular. Tonight, we made history, not only by becoming the first network to launch 5G in the UK – but using 5G to live stream this event to thousands of fans across the UK. Stormzy lit up the Thames and his fans’ faces with the energy, passion and charisma that he always brings to his live shows.”

Besides 5G enthusiast Stormzy, the BBC has also been testing out the network, using it to support a live video feed during a report from a separate launch event shown on TV on the morning of 30 May.

The BBC would usually need multiple connections over a 4G network in order to return content to its studios, but over the 5G network, it needed just one.

It connected specialised 5G modems to its cameras to transmit footage from Covent Garden back to its New Broadcasting House news studios in central London, and explored a variety of encoding options to compress the video.

“This is an excellent example of how the BBC experiments with cutting-edge technology to improve how we make programmes,” said Matthew Postgate, BBC chief technology and product officer. “5G is a hugely interesting area for us to explore, with potential to reduce the cost and complexity of outside broadcasts, and as a way of delivering content to audiences in the future.

“The internet will play a bigger role in broadcasting and we are pioneering the techniques, standards and ways of working to truly take advantage of it.”

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However, with most of the UK not covered by 5G and unlikely to be for some time – and many of the 5G use cases around automation and the internet of things (IoT) not really applicable to consumers anyway – observers have questioned the need for users to sign up for 5G just yet.

Among them was IEEE fellow William Webb, who said he saw something of a rush among operators to claim 5G leadership, which unfortunately was resulting in “premature launches”.

“Initially, coverage will be very patchy – some areas in city centres may have a good connection, but little elsewhere,” said Webb. “For many, there may be no 5G coverage where they live and work for many years.

“The only real benefit here is that 5G networks will be virtually empty, allowing congestion-free communications. This is a big advantage when you consider places such as Waterloo, King’s Cross or other mainline train stations.

“While lower congestion is a valuable benefit, there is no sign of the services or applications that will deliver the well-documented changes to the way we live and work that some have promised.”

Alex Tofts, an analyst at service comparison site Broadband Genie, said there was no reason for most people to buy a 5G device yet.

“Coverage will remain limited for some time, and the cost of being an early adopter is high,” he said. “Once more networks deploy 5G and coverage improves, the cost will fall as competition rises.

“But while the potential of 5G is exciting, we can’t forget that UK network operators still have an obligation to provide 4G signal to 95% of the UK by 2022.

“5G has a lot of promise, but the operators should not lose focus on ensuring that coverage for existing technology continues to improve, especially in rural locations where mobile broadband can be used to plug the gaps in fixed-line broadband access.”

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