3G net to be retired in 2023 as BT promises 5G across entire UK by 2028

UK’s incumbent telco unveils new mobile and convergence ambitions with almost universal next-generation wireless over next seven years

BT has set out plans to introduce what it claims will be the UK’s first fully converged network that can support “revolutionary” new services for customers and converged technology opportunities for businesses.

As it confirmed technology “milestones” that will drive performance of the 5G network and deliver network convergence, the telco said 4K content streaming, the rapid growth of augmented and virtual realities and increasing demand for high-quality video-conferencing are helping to drive 40% growth in demand for mobile network capacity every year.

As a result, said BT, investment into wider coverage and technology improvements were crucial to meet customers’ growing expectations of their digital networks, as well as improving their experiences. It noted that 5G was already revolutionising gaming and immersive entertainment experiences, while for businesses, the advancements can help catalyse the digital transformation of major industries, boosting productivity and efficiency, and creating new services.

The roadmap of the end-to-end technology overhaul that will deliver the new converged network will begin with a new 5G core network control system, set to launch by 2023, built upon BT’s distributed Network Cloud infrastructure, combining all digital networks. BT will increasingly use machine learning to predict and resolve issues before they affect customers and automatically route services through the best available connection, in what the company says will be a major step towards a fully converged and virtualised network.

To demonstrate the transformative benefits of 5G, BT said it will carry out a range of customer showcases of the technology, including standalone and edge compute deployments, from this summer, and it plans to exploit them across a range of new customer experiences from 2022.

To extend mobile coverage in BT’s mobile network, EE said it will drive 4G connectivity deeper into rural areas, adding more than 4,500 square miles of new signal by 2025. In parallel, EE’s 5G network, launched two years ago, will grow to cover half of the UK population by early 2023, four years ahead of the UK government’s plans outlined in the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review.

Utilising the expanded 4G infrastructure, BT said 5G will pass the geographic reach of 4G to become the UK’s largest digital network by 2028, providing signal to over 90% of UK landmass.

To reach this benchmark, new 700MHz 5G spectrum, recently secured in Ofcom’s auction, will be deployed across most EE sites, offering stronger indoor and wider rural coverage, while BT’s increasing role in the deployment of neutral host systems – third-party infrastructure that can be used by multiple networks – will support enhanced 4G and 5G coverage in busy environments such as airports, stadiums and campuses.

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BT said that to realise the ambition of extending the reach of 5G across the entire UK, it was developing a wide range of on-demand coverage solutions, with portable cells providing temporary mobile connectivity at a lower cost than building traditional cell sites, and a fleet of rapid-response vehicles will be expanded and diversified to provide enhanced coverage, resilience or capacity in remote areas.

BT is also targeting the greater use of air and space technologies, including drones and low Earth orbit satellites, and in June 2021 signed an early agreement with OneWeb to drive the technology applications forward. It also revealed that a business relationship with Starlink would be considered, if appropriate.

One of the consequences of the strategy to extend reliable and high-quality 4G and 5G coverage will see 3G services being retired, with customers across BT brands phased off 3G by 2023. BT said 3G usage has been in steady decline and now represents less than 2% of data traffic over the EE network, and the spectrum will be used to enhance future 5G capacity.

Removing legacy technologies could also means BT diversifying its range of future partners. This could be key in developing opportunities in the area of Open RAN, trialling the software-defined comms network technology to identify future opportunities in trials in parts of its network.

However, at the event introducing the new strategy, BT CTO Howard Watson said BT did not foresee live deployment of Open RAN systems until the end of the decade, by which time rivals – which were also mandated to replace Huawei network technology from their infrastructures and were investigating Open RAN as part of replacement programmes – would have already gone live with their systems.

Philip Jansen, chief executive of BT Group, said: “Over the past 18 months, we have helped the UK to meet the demands of a pandemic. We must now look ahead to deliver the strongest foundations to drive future growth. We are making a uniquely ambitious, long-term commitment to drive high-performance 5G further and faster, and to integrate it at the core with our fibre network for a seamless customer experience. Openreach was first to fibre, EE was first to 5G, and together, BT will be first to a fully converged future.”

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