EE has a 5G smartphone announcement of its own

With Verizon and AT&T scrapping for attention with Samsung 5G smartphone announcements, EE is clamouring to prove its worth with its own OnePlus 5G declaration.

EE claims it will be the first operator in the world to deliver OnePlus’ version of a 5G-compatible smartphone. Whether this has any material impact on customer acquisition remains to be seen as recent trends suggest cash-conscious consumers are holding onto devices longer, while refurbished devices are gaining more and more traction. Another interesting factor will be UK consumers preference for more well-known brands.

That said, being a world-first for a challenger smartphone brand gathering momentum is a positive, while potentially being first in the UK to offer a device will attract the attention of early adopters.

“EE and OnePlus have a shared vision: to give our customers the best-connected experience possible,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division. “We’re working together on cutting edge technology to deliver that, and we’re leading the world on the journey to 5G. Adding 5G to the UK’s number one 4G network will increase reliability, increase speeds, and keep our customers connected where they need it most. We have an ambition to connect our customers to 4G, 5G or Wi-Fi 100% of the time.”

“The pursuit of speed has defined the OnePlus DNA since OnePlus was founded five years ago,” said OnePlus founder Pete Lau. “There’s no one more suitable than OnePlus to make a 5G smartphone. Our users are always eager to try new things and they are now ready to experience the next generation of connectivity and speed. In response, OnePlus has poured efforts into 5G research since 2016. Today, we stand poised to embrace the dawn of 5G.”

Of course, it might not mean much to the UK consumer. Recent research from UK mobile app developers Tappable suggests only 34% of consumers would consider purchases from lesser known brands. The latest technology is of course important to the survey respondents, but with OnePlus very much a challenger brand in the UK, this partnership might end up meaning very little in a brand-loyal market.

EE was announced as the launch partner of the device at the Qualcomm summit event, taking place in Hawaii, though 5G will only cover 15% of the population when the phone is launched. The six cities which will be included in the first phase of EE’s 5G rollout are London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester, though ten more will be added to the list over the remainder of 2019.

Trials are currently taking place in Canary Wharf and across East London, while the MNO also conducted a live 5G broadcast between Wembley Stadium and the Excel Exhibition Centre last month. The initial focus of the 5G rollout will be on the busiest parts of the named cities, Hyde Park in London and the Manchester Arena for example, though it seems EE is wary about misleading the consumer about 5G being up-front with the limited nature of the coverage.

Specific dates of the 5G launch are currently as accurate as a wine-snob’s description of last night’s merlot, though the 5G hype is starting to build once again after briefly losing its treasured place in the hearts and minds of marketers to AI.

Qualcomm pumps Snapdragon 855 in Hawaii

The chipset company Qualcomm just unveiled the newest Snapdragon SoC product to power 5G mobile devices.

On the first day of its annual “Snapdragon Tech Summit” in Hawaii, Qualcomm introduced its first commercial 5G chipset, branded as Snapdragon 855. The system is compatible with Qualcomm’s X50 modem with antennae supporting 5G on both sub-6GHz and mmWave frequency bands. On a 7-nm silicon will also be its 4th-generation multi-core on-device AI engine (said to deliver 3X faster AI performance than its predecessor the Snapdragon 845), Computer Vision Image Signal Processor (CV-ISP) for new photo and video features (“true 4K HDR video capture, cinema-grade photography capabilities”), and 3D Sonic Sensor. The sonic sensor can be used for under-display fingerprint reading using ultrasonic waves (instead of the current optical under-display sensors using light), which, Qualcomm claims, is safer and more accurate.

Qualcomm expects the first smartphones using the new chipset to hit the market in the first half of next year. “The Snapdragon 855 will define the premium tier in 2019,” said Alex Katouzian, SVP and GM of Mobile for Qualcomm, who unveiled the new chipset. Earlier Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm’s President, said he expected to see a lot of phone announcements at CES in January and a lot of actual phone launches at MWC in February.

“Today marks a massive and exciting step forward underscoring how Qualcomm Technologies and ecosystem leaders are driving 5G commercialization, a journey that went from R&D, accelerated standardization and trials, the launch of innovative products and technologies, to the imminent launch of 5G networks and smartphones across the globe starting in early 2019,” said Amon at yesterday’s event. “Together we are demonstrating our role in transforming the mobile industry and enriching consumer experiences with 5G mobile devices on live 5G networks at this year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon Technology Summit.”

Executives from mobile operators including AT&T, EE, Telstra, and Verizon were present at the event, so were representatives from Ericsson, Samsung, Motorola, NETGEAR, and Inseego. The 5G smartphone from Samsung to be launched by both Verizon and AT&T is likely to be the first of its kind to be built on Snapdragon 855.

“At Samsung, we have a vision of a connected world powered by 5G that will benefit consumers, communities, industries and governments,” said Justin Denison, SVP for mobile product strategy and marketing at Samsung Electronics America. “5G will fuel collaboration, connectivity and productivity worldwide, and we’re excited to be at the forefront working alongside partners like Qualcomm Technologies to make the transformation to 5G a reality.”

The event will last three days till Thursday, and Qualcomm promised more announcements and more details will be released.

EE does a 5G broadcast

In the latest installment of its snowballing 5G marketing drive, UK MNO EE claimed to have conducted a live 5G broadcast between Wembley Stadium and the Excel Exhibition Centre.

The two locations were chosen because EE has a 5G test network at Wembley and it was hanging out with Huawei at its MBBF event in the Excel. Specifically EE, together with BT Sport, ‘demonstrated the first live broadcast with remote production over 5G’ according to the announcement. It looks like MBBF attendees were the recipients of this broadcast.

“5G will next season enable BT Sport to deploy the most advanced remote production of any broadcaster,” said Jamie Hindhaugh, COO of BT Sport. “It will allow us to cover more live matches from more leagues and competitions, and to bring fans highlights action closer to the final whistle than has ever been done before in the UK.” Marc Allera, head of BT’s consumer group, said much the same.

The test network uses EE’s 3.4GHz spectrum from its 5G antenna in the stadium, connected to a 10Gbps backhaul link. How much of the 14 miles between the two sites was covered by actual wireless 5G is unclear, but EE is likely to have its claim to the first live 5G broadcast accepted unquestioningly by most of the media so job done there.

Operators stress the need to collaborate over 5G

At Huawei’s MBBF 2018 event some of its operator partners talked up the need for greater collaboration, including among themselves, to make a success of 5G.

Howard Watson, CTIO of BT, said “we truly need interoperability,” when detailing all the many moving parts that need to work with each other in order to make all this 5G hype a reality. He identified the TIP initiative as an example of operators collaborating towards a common goal and was careful to stress that he thinks vendors can still raise their game in that area too.

Being given a keynote at MBBF is also a great opportunity for a spot of self-promotion and Watson didn’t hold back. We were reminded of the recent announcement of EE’s 2019 5G rollout plans and even its most recent 5G trial in London. He also took the opportunity to talk up BT’s group strategy, using the diagram you can find here, which BT is bafflingly keen on, to illustrate his point.

Once Watson got all this corporate chest-beating out of his system he did flag up one interesting feature of BT’s broader strategy: the tight integration of wifi into the overall connectivity picture for BTEE customers. BT is extending the IMS network it currently uses for wifi calling in order to facilitate this and will be doing some clever stuff to solve the pain currently experienced when trying to dynamically switch between wifi and cellular. Creating all this simplicity is very complicated, he concluded.

We also heard from Alex Choi, Head of T-Labs at Deutsche Telekom. He couldn’t resist a bit of light self-congratulation in flagging up its 5G efforts in Berlin (in partnership with Huawei). He too stressed the need for ‘an ecosystem approach’ to 5G and highlighted HD video streaming as a key use-case for consumers.

EE and Virgin Media fined for ripping off customers when they leave early

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has fined EE and Virgin Media millions of pounds for excessive early-exit charges.

Churn (loss of customers) is a constant worry for communications service providers and the best way to reduce it is to provide such a good communications service that subscribers don’t want to leave. Another way is to make it so odious and costly to leave that most people just can’t be bothered with the hassle and it seems EE and VM went a bit too far with the latter strategy.

Ofcom says it’s OK for CSPs to attach conditions to the early exit from contracts, but that those must be ‘clear, comprehensive and easily accessible’. Furthermore Ofcom stipulates “Communications providers shall ensure that conditions or procedure for contract termination do not act as disincentives for end-users against changing their communications provider”. It thinks thinks that’s what happened with EE and VM, which is why it has fined them £6.3 million and £7 million, respectively.

“EE and Virgin Media broke our rules by overcharging people who ended their contracts early,” said Ofcom’s spectacularly-named Director of Investigations and Enforcement, Gaucho Rasmussen. “Those people were left out of pocket, and the charges amounted to millions of pounds. That is unacceptable. These fines send a clear message to all phone and broadband firms that they must play by the rules, in the interests of their customers.”

VM doesn’t see it in quite the same way and is appealing the ruling. “We profoundly disagree with Ofcom’s ruling,” said Tom Mockridge, CEO of Virgin Media. “This decision and fine is not justified, proportionate or reasonable. A small percentage of customers were charged an incorrect amount when they ended one or more of their services early and for that we are very sorry.

“As soon as we became aware of the mistake we apologised and took swift action to put it right by paying refunds, with interest, to everyone affected. For those few people we could not locate, we have made an equivalent donation to charity.  We also reviewed our internal processes and systems, and improved our customer communications to make sure that this does not happen again.

“We wholeheartedly reject the claim by Ofcom that our ETC levels dissuaded customers from switching. This unreasonable decision and excessive fine does not reflect the swift actions we took, the strong evidence we have presented, or our consistent, open and transparent cooperation with the regulator.  We will be appealing Ofcom’s decision.”

EE hadn’t sent us a statement at time of writing, nor had it issued a press release. Read into that what you will but the fact that Ofcom reduced its fine by 30% in return for it not kicking up a fuss would seem to be significant.

Mockridge’s moan can be interpreted in a few ways. Taken at face value it’s easy to feel some sympathy. If indeed it was a small, innocent mistake that VM moved to correct as soon as it was aware of it, then the fine does seem excessive. If, however, VM knew what it was doing and thinks it should be able to get away with it just by saying sorry after it was caught, then it doesn’t.

At the very least the relative fines seem disproportionate. EE over-billed 400,000 of its customers for a total of £13.5 million in early exit charges over a six year period, while VM only rinsed 82,000 of its punters for £2.8 million in less than a year. Surely the scale of EE’s breach was far greater and it looks like it’s being too generously rewarded by Ofcom for its capitulation.

EE fleshes out its 2019 5G launch plans

Having apparently exhausted the PR potential of 5G trials EE has moved on to talking up its plans for actual launches.

Sometime in 2019 EE will launch 5G in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester. Sometime after that, but still in 2019, it will launch in ten more UK cities, which you can see in the map below.

In order to fully exploit the power of 5G EE is initially focusing on what it considers to be the busiest parts of those first six cities: Hyde Park in London, Manchester Arena, Belfast City Airport, the Welsh Assembly, Edinburgh Waverly train station and Birmingham’s Bullring.

Further explanation of the reasons for choosing its launch locations revolves around the specific EE cell sites that have to deal with the most traffic. One site in Waterloo station alone, we’re told, carries more than 100 terabytes of data per day. Presumably much of this is beleaguered commuters trying to find out when their train will turn up or sharing their plight on social media.

The first 1,500 sites that EE is upgrading to 5G in 2019 carry 25% of all data across the whole network, but only cover 15% of the UK population, apparently. The fact that EE made a point of sharing this factoid may be indicative of it anticipating misguided criticism of it focusing on densely populated areas as opposed to fields, hills, lakes, etc.

“Adding 5G to the UK’s number one 4G network will increase reliability, increase speeds, and keep our customers connected where they need it most,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer division. “This is another milestone for the UK and for our network journey – we’ll keep evolving as we move to one, smart network for our customers. We have an ambition to connect our customers to 4G, 5G or wifi 100% of the time.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan didn’t get where he is today without exploiting publicity opportunities like this. “I want London to be the world’s leading smart city and 5G expansion is at the heart of this ambition – it is good news for Londoners, innovation, and business,” he said. “At City Hall we are working hard right across the capital to ensure we have the network infrastructure needed through our new Connected London programme. EE’s ambitious investment in 5G sites demonstrates that our city is a great place to invest in innovative and future-facing digital connectivity.”

While EE hasn’t offered specific dates for its 5G rollout it is at least making some effort to put some meat on the bones of its 5G hype. Three made an even vaguer pronouncement last week, but the other two MNOs have been strangely reticent. They’ll presumably get there eventually and we look forward to lots more of this sort of thing in the coming months, complete with images of people using their phones in a 5G-ish way and sexy shots of telecoms gear on rooftops.

EE 5G launch map

BT increases profit on declining revenues by getting rid of 2,000 people

Operator group BT saw its revenues decline in the six months to the end of September but still managed a 30% increase in net profit.

Profit is revenue minus overheads and reducing the latter is a time-honoured way for companies to keep themselves in the black. Among BT’s five strategic highlights for the fiscal half-year, which included finding a new CEO and demonstrating its 5G capability, was the ‘removal’ of around 2,000 roles over that time. The other two were a small NPS gain and some vague Openreach achievement.

“We continued to generate positive momentum in the second quarter resulting in encouraging results for the half year,” said Chief Exec Gaving Patterson, possibly for the last time. “We are successfully delivering against the core pillars of our strategy with improved customer experience metrics, accelerating ultrafast deployment and positive progress towards transforming our operating model.

“In consumer, we continue to see strong sales of our converged product, BT Plus, and have seen good mobile sales following new handset launches. Last month EE demonstrated 5G capability from a live site in Canary Wharf. We have maintained momentum in our enterprise businesses despite legacy product declines.”

BT had some fun with its slide deck this quarter, a highlight being the below attempt to illustrate its group strategy via the kind of rectangle-stacking larks usually associated with software architecture diagrams. It presumably took a while to do but apart from being an efficient way to display a number of generic corporate aspirations it’s not obvious what BT is trying to say.

BT Q3 2018 slide 1

There were also distinct slides summarising the performance of each business group. As you can see below revenue growth was hard to find, and it’s interesting to note which other metrics were cherry-picked to show the division in the best light. In terms of revenue BT remains very much a work in progress but making a decent profit is certainly a step in the right direction. You can read further analysis on this here.

BT Q3 2018 slide 2

BT Q3 2018 slide 3

BT Q3 2018 slide 4

BT Q3 2018 slide 5

BT Q3 2018 slide 6

 

EE holds onto Opensignal MNO crown

EE has held onto its position as the best performing UK MNO according to the latest figures from Opensignal.

For 4G download performance, EE maintained its leadership position with average download speeds of 29 Mbps between June and August, while it also led in upload speed, latency and availability. This is not to say there weren’t improvements elsewhere, Vodafone grew its average 4G download to 21.9 Mbps, though Three’s dropped with the telco slipping down to third place in the performance rankings.

4G might not have been a fruitful playground for Three, but it did steal the top-spot for 3G speeds off EE. With average speeds of 7.8 Mbps it edged just ahead of EE at 7.2 Mbps, though this will come as little comfort as telcos increasingly look to re-farm 3G spectrum to bolster 4G performance.

Interestingly enough, O2 is still maintaining its position as the leading telco in terms of market share, despite a damning review of the telco from Opensignal. O2 sat in last place for all categories aside from latency (3G and 4G) and availability, where it was second behind EE. O2 might arguably have the weakest network in the UK, the power of promotions seems to counter this position. The Priority loyalty programme is perhaps proving its worth in gold here.

While many will preach the benefits of having the best network, these figures show it’s not always about being the fastest.

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