Virgin Mobile

Virgin to enter UK 5G fray but regulator delays 5G spectrum auction

UK operator marks ‘milestone’ moment in its history with 5G offer to add to gigabit broadband, but Ofcom puts on hold the process to gain mid-band frequencies

In a day of swings and roundabouts for the UK’s 5G arena, communications provider Virgin Media revealed that 5G services are now available in 100 towns and cities across the country, but the edge was taken off by comms regulator Ofcom announcing that it is delaying the long-awaited auction of the 700MHz and 3.6-3.8GHz spectrum bands that will support next-generation network services.

Ofcom’s regulations for the auction came into force on 18 November 2020 and applications to participate in the auction have now closed, but the regulator has now provided an update on timing for the principal stage of the auction, expressing concerns about the Covid-19 status in the UK where lockdown regulations have been in place since 26 December 2020.

Following a pause in the auction process, Ofcom was originally planning for the principal stage of the auction to take place in January 2021. It has now said this bidding stage will begin in March. However, the regulator said it would continue to monitor developments.

After the Ofcom statement was issued, a spokesperson from EE 5G network owner BT said that even though it understood the unique circumstances of the decision, it was disappointed that the auction would be delayed and cautioned against any further holds-ups given the negative effect that these could have on the UK economy.

“The auction and subsequent release of spectrum remain central to the future roll-out of mobile networks and 5G,” the spokesperson added. “The economy’s recovery from Covid-19 is dependent on resilient digital infrastructure and we urge Ofcom to resist any further requests for delays.” 

As it fought to warn the UK government against the removal of its technology from the national infrastructure, comms tech provider Huawei calculated that severely delaying UK operators’ 5G roll-out plans could adversely affect the UK economy by £18.2bn, potentially losing the UK’s current competitive advantage in 5G market leadership.

As it joins this market in what the company calls a milestone moment in its history, Virgin Media’s 5G services will be making exclusive use of the Vodafone UK 5G network. The launch is a major milestone in its partnership with the company, which was first announced in 2019.

“As the world’s first virtual mobile operator, our offering has long been about breaking boundaries and offering our customers a premium service without the price tag”
Jeff Dodds, Virgin Media

Virgin customers who upgrade to 5G will be migrated to receive all mobile services from the Vodafone network. New and existing mobile customers taking a 4G plan will remain on Virgin Media’s mobile service via EE’s network until Virgin Media’s agreement with BT Enterprise comes to an end in late 2021. Virgin Media anticipates that all of its mobile customers will have transitioned to the Vodafone network by early 2022.

“As the world’s first virtual mobile operator, our offering has long been about breaking boundaries and offering our customers a premium service without the price tag,” said Virgin Media chief operating officer Jeff Dodds.

“That’s why we’re launching fast, reliable 5G connectivity at no extra cost while keeping the added extras of our existing mobile plans in place. By offering 5G and gigabit broadband all under one roof, Virgin Media customers can experience next-generation connectivity both in and out of the home, putting them in a great place to take advantage of the latest technology,” he added.

Vodafone UK’s head of wholesale, Mike Cartwright, said the move was a continued validation of Vodafone’s wholesale strategy of bringing new mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) onto its network.

Virgin said its virtual mobile network would offer average speeds in the region of 176.62Mbps, around 4.5 times faster than its average 4G speeds. 5G services will be available to customers on a range of plans, including SIM-only and pay monthly. New 5G plans include the new Samsung Galaxy S21 handset.

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