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Vodafone switches on 5G mobile network

The UK’s longest-standing mobile operator, Vodafone, has officially turned on its 5G mobile network at an event in London, and reintroduced unlimited data packages for users as it looks to shake up the market

Mobile network operator Vodafone has officially launched its 5G mobile network service at an event in the City of London, with UK chief executive Nick Jeffery and reigning Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton pushing the ceremonial big red button, marking the culmination of a multi-year, £4.5bn transformation and preparation programme for the operator.

Initially available in seven cities, as well as at Vodafone’s Berkshire headquarters and on the Isles of Scilly in Cornwall, the service will run over its all-fibre RedStream backhaul network, which also supports its existing 3G and 4G networks, as well as home broadband and enterprise customers.

The network is built on Ericsson’s Radio System (ERS) portfolio, including its new Baseband 6630 and Massive MIMO 6488 products which, combined with underlying LTE technology, should offer users speeds 10 times faster than on 4G right out of the gate. The ERS also includes dynamic spectrum sharing which will let Vodafone extend its coverage over a larger area by using its existing 4G spectrum.

Vodafone is making two handsets available at launch, Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 3 alongside Samsung’s Galaxy S10 at the premium end – like its rivals, it will not be stocking any Huawei devices, although Jeffery hinted this may change in the near future.

At the same time, Vodafone has revamped its customer pricing plans, reintroducing unlimited data packages with a view to accommodating the exponential growth in data usage predicted on consumer 5G networks.

“Our customers are streaming over 50% more content today than they did last year, and with 5G the demand for data is only set to increase. That is why we want to remove the limits on data, so that customers can unlock the full potential of 5G, and we can really propel the UK into the digital age,” said Jeffery.

“By offering unlimited plans to our consumer and business customers, we will revolutionise the market. We will give customers all the data they need, when and where they want it.”

“Data usage and content quality is polarising, yet as an industry we still use the same propositions focusing on gigabit allowances alone. It is now time to differentiate offerings by experience, not gigabit allowances,” added Vodafone UK consumer director Max Taylor.

The three new price plans – Unlimited Lite, Unlimited, and Unlimited Max – will start at £23 per month rising to £30 per month, and will be ranked by speed instead of data, starting at 2Mbps – which Vodafone insisted will be sufficient for basic usage needs – and rising to 10Mbps, and then “as fast as the device and network allow”.

The new pricing structure also puts no premium on access to the 5G network, which Taylor said was a “vital point of differentiation” against the likes of EE.

“To charge a premium makes a customer have to judge how often they’re going to be in a 5G area, which is a barrier that is not needed,” he said.

The same packages, with slightly different pricing levels, are being made available to business users concurrently.

Vodafone will also be offering a 5G home access router, the Huawei-built Gigacube, which will start at £30 per month and offer connectivity for up to 64 devices.

Analyst Kester Mann, director of consumer and connectivity at CCS Insight, said that Vodafone seemed finally to have got its mojo back and hailed an air of new optimism and ambition to “regain former glories in its emotive home market”.

“Vodafone’s move into unlimited data and its decision to price 5G the same as 4G indicate the emergence of a challenger mentality. This is in sharp contrast to its traditional premium-focused approach. It could spell bad news for Three, which has built a strategy based on challenging industry norms,” said Mann.

“The big story of the event was the launch of speed-tiered unlimited data tariffs – a first for the UK. As a new concept, Vodafone will need to articulate the propositions carefully to consumers only just beginning to appreciate the value of megabytes and gigabytes. Once understood, however, Vodafone Unlimited could prove a powerful acquisition tool.”

Dominic Sunnebo, director of consumer insight at Kantar, said many consumers were already chomping at the bit to upgrade to 5G, with only 9% of Britons unaware of the technology.

“Out of those who are aware of 5G and have some level of understanding of it, 23.2% (5.6 million) say they are somewhat likely to buy 5G when they upgrade, in the knowledge it will likely cost more than current 4G tariff plans,” said Sunnebo.

“A further 7% (1.8 million) say they are very likely to buy 5G. These figures provide a solid starting point for the networks to drive adoption of this new technology, the key to accelerating adoption will be ensuring store assistants are fully trained on the real-life benefits of 5G, as well as continuing to invest in nationwide campaigns to drive excitement about the possibilities 5G brings to consumers.”

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