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.

Opensignal Awards

EE offers first UK 5G to a bunch of bankers

EE is claiming victory in the UK 5G race, but its newly announced live trial in Canary Wharf is still just a trial.

Furthermore, said live trial hasn’t yet taken place, it seems, with EE stating ‘This will be the UK’s first live 5G trial, and is a major milestone in the rollout of the next generation of mobile networks.’ But the switch that powers the trial has been flicked, which is something, and is clearly considered worthy of a special announcement.

“This is the latest milestone in our 5G rollout – a live test of our 5G network, in a hugely busy hotspot, where we know there’s going to be demand from customers for increased mobile capacity,” said Fotis Karonis, who now goes by the title of 5G Technology Lead at BT Group. “We were UK pioneers with 4G and today we saw the UK’s first live connections on 5G – this is a huge step forward for our digital infrastructure.”

So has it happened yet or not? Within the same press release EE has used the future, present and past tenses to refer to the same event. Come on guys… ‘The live trial will be held in Montgomery Square, Canary Wharf,’ continues the release. ‘With 150,000 people coming to the Canary Wharf estate every day, the site is one of the most popular regions in the country and attracts consumers and businesses that require world-class connectivity.’

“Staying at the forefront of connectivity and new technologies is critical to our community, and that’s why we’re partnering with BT Group to support delivery of 5G,” said Mark Nallen, Head of Technology and Innovation, Canary Wharf Group. “The consumers who live and work here will benefit from being better connected, and the enterprises based here will have the chance to partner with BT Group to understand the full capabilities of 5G.”

There can be little doubt that the bunch of bankers inhabiting Canary Wharf will make full use of 5G, when it arrives, to bank ever more frequently and take their banking to a whole new level. EE seems to have anticipated scepticism about the substance of this supposed 5G launch so it provided a photo of a woman standing in Canary Wharf in an EE-coloured top, looking at her phone, which you can see above. Can’t say fairer than that.

EE dangles students from a crane

In order to make some kind of statement about 4G, EE suspended a small movie theatre full of students from a crane.

The publicity stunt is being billed as the world’s first 4GEE cinema in the sky. It consisted of attaching a small stage with seats and a screen to a 100 foot crane, then getting students from the Goodwood Flying School to sit on it while it was lifted up. EE says the screening was 4G-powered, but didn’t specify how. There were popcorn-carrying drones though, so fair enough.

“Over the next month we are going to be travelling thousands of miles to areas we’ve recently switched on with 4G, to deliver unforgettable experiences to those communities, only possible over our award winning 4G network,” said Pete Jeavons, Director of Brand Marketing at EE. “As part of our ongoing partnership with BAFTA, we constantly challenge ourselves on how to bring film to new audiences using the power of our network, and 4GEE Cinema is a great example of doing just that.”

“BAFTA and EE have had such a longstanding and successful partnership because we share a commitment to helping audiences discover and enjoy great cinema in new and innovative ways,” said Tim Hunter, Director of Learning and New Talent at BAFTA. “We fully support EE in its continued ambition to bring BAFTA-winning films to rural communities.”

That’s it really. EE seems to have achieved its objective by getting coverage from a credulous mainstream media happy to take even the most lightweight press release at face value. As indicated in the canned quotes there are further such stunts planned, but in the meantime here’s a vid.

 

EE shows its 5G ambitions are greater than the smartphone

EE is set to green light its first 5G trial in London, testing out its fixed wireless access ambitions.

Five businesses and five homes will have the chance to test out EE’s 5G broadband capabilities as the telco shows us it’s not all about bufferless cat videos on the bus. The trial will see 5G switched on at ten sites around East London in City Road, Old Street, Hoxton Square, St Paul’s and Chiswell Street.

Although details of the trialists are thin at the moment, EE has hinted it will make use of social media to find them. If anything else, it’s an interesting idea to increase follows across the various platforms.

“This live trial is a big step forward in making the benefits of 5G a reality for our customers, and in making sure that the UK is at the front of the pack for 5G technology,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer business.

“We’re focusing our resource and experience across EE and BT to ensure that we continue to lead the UK market with a mobile network that keeps giving our customers the best speeds and the best coverage. 5G is a fundamental part of our work to build a converged, smart network that keeps our customers connected to the things that matter most.”

Of course it wouldn’t be a proper trial if a politician didn’t get the chance to show off the fluoride smile to the world.

“We want the UK to be a global leader in 5G as part of our ambition to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone,” said Margot James, Minister for Digital. “Together with the Government’s own test beds and trials programme, industry initiatives like this will help deliver the benefits of this new revolutionary technology to businesses and consumers across the UK.”

While the main buzz of the 5G euphoria has been centred around improving the experience on your smart phone or filling the roads with autonomous vehicles, the fixed wireless access use case has been seldom touched in the UK. It certainly has been a talking point elsewhere, Verizon just launched it offering in very limited pockets of the US, though now the UK telcos seem to be catching on.

In recent weeks, Vodafone outlined their plans and trials for the 5G world, unusually selecting two rural locations as test beds, Cornwall and the Lake District. The explanation here; there is a need to trial all sorts of different use cases in different environments, with fixed wireless access being one.

Of course, 5G broadband connectivity does not offer the same reliability or potential of fibre-based connectivity (at least not until we start talking about 6G/7G/8G…) but it is a genuine use case which can be brought to the market in the near future. While we will have to wait until mid- to late-2019 for 5G compatible smartphones, routers will be on the market much sooner.

Ofcom isn’t happy with EE and Vodafone’s coverage predictions

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom has opened separate investigations into coverage predictions offered up by EE and Vodafone.

In what seems like a fairly pedantic move Ofcom has announced it’s looking into information provided by the two MNOs when it asked them to say how much of the country they expect to cover. Bizarrely EE is suspected of overestimating its 3G coverage, while Vodafone may have under-predicted its 4G coverage.

Why any of this matters is unclear. Ofcom uses these estimates for its own studies into UK mobile coverage, which are ultimately politically sensitive due to the tendency for politicians to grandstand on behalf of those people with dodgy coverage. It’s possible that Ofcom is getting political heat and is looking for scapegoats. Here are the two Ofcom statements.

“On 1 October 2018, Ofcom opened an investigation into EE’s compliance with requests for 3G mobile coverage predictions across the UK under these rules. This followed on from the identification by Ofcom of errors in the 3G/2100 MHz coverage data that EE provided which meant that its 3G coverage was over-predicted, particularly in rural areas.”

“On 1 October 2018, Ofcom opened an investigation into Vodafone’s compliance with requests for 4G mobile coverage predictions across the UK under these rules. This followed on from the identification by Ofcom of errors in the 4G/800 MHz coverage data that Vodafone provided which meant that its 4G coverage was under-predicted, particularly in rural areas.”

As indicated by the beeb, the operators will claim some combination of innocence, mitigation and contrition, so it’s hard to imagine anything significant resulting from these probes. Maybe Ofcom just likes to throw this sort of thing at operators every now and then just to keep them on their toes.

Home Office to delay 4G emergency service network by another three years

The Home Office has announced its cumbersome project to overhaul the Emergency Services Network (ESN) with a 4G network has been set back by another few years.

After negotiating a month-by-month contract with Motorola to keep its aging digital radio network Airwave alive, the Home Office has signed a new contract to extend this partnership through to 2022. Alongside this damning signature, the Motorola Solutions ESN agreement will be extended by 30 months through the end of 2024, to allow for a new phased implementation of EE’s 4G ESN. Just to put things in perspective, the initial plan was to have the network up and running by mid-2017.

“We are proud to support the Home Office on its new delivery approach for ESN while at the same time ensuring public safety users have the Airwave communications network they need,” said Kelly Mark, EVP of services and software at Motorola Solutions. “We have been working closely with the Home Office to ensure that our services are aligned with this new phased deployment and timeline for ESN.”

The new incremental approach means police, fire and rescue services, ambulance services and other users will be able to use data services over the network from early next year, with voice capabilities at some undefined point in the future. Of course, this is the sort of efficiency and accuracy many have come to expect from the UK government.

Keeping track of what is going on with the ESN is a tricky task; the rollout plan has changed more times than a teenagers mood.

Back when the initiative was initially launched, the plan was to give the emergency services the communications capability to match and exceed what they enjoy as private individuals. When the final contracts were issued to Motorola, to provide the public safety applications and user services, and EE, to provide an enhanced radio access service with nationwide coverage, the project was timetabled for completion by mid-2017. At the time, Mike Penning, Minister for Policing, Crime, Criminal Justice & Victims, boasted the new network would save the government £1 million a day.

The ESN is to be built on EE’s commercial network, the largest 4G mobile network in the UK with the emergency services and other bodies to benefit from a dedicated core network designed to ensure priority use of the EE commercial network. The network will provide geographical coverage along major and minor roads, and special coverage locations; selected buildings, road tunnels and the London Underground for example, as well as 12 miles out to sea covering UK territorial waters and air-to-ground communications in England, Scotland and Wales. Some of the new features will include live video from body worn cameras transmitted from crime scenes or high definition images to allow hospital consultants to make remote diagnosis and treatment recommendations.

After a scathing review from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), this deployment date was pushed back to end-2019, and then a further nine months to September 2020. The party line is now the programme will save £200 million per year, considerably less than the initial promise from Penning. Perhaps such delays should have been expected from the beginning. Aside from this being a government initiative, the National Audit Office warned in September 2016 progress was five months behind schedule, not leaving enough time for the relevant users to effective test the network and learn from other authorities.

This is of course not the first time a government project has spiralled into incompetence. The abandoned NHS patient record system of yesteryear proved nothing but a disaster, swallowing more than £10 billion in public funds and delivering about as much satisfaction as warm milk on an August afternoon. At the time, MP Richard Bacon suggested “this saga is one of the worst and most expensive contracting fiascos in the history of the public sector”, but this was just another in a long line of disasters which included the child support agency, leaving thousands of families without cash, chaos within the passport agency and a tax credit system which was left open to fraud.

With the latest push-back from the Home Office, the project is doing nothing but enforcing the stereotype of civil servants and the capabilities of the public sector.

UK MNOs accused of using handset subsidies to rip off their customers

Research from Citizens Advice reckons four million people in the UK are still paying back their phone subsidies after the end of their contracts.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has reached the end of a postpaid contract that came with a subsidised handset. It’s universally understood that such things are part service contract and part financing on the device, but MNOs are generally deficient in contacting their customers when the contract period is over.

They do get in touch, but usually with misleading offers such as ‘free’ new handsets, when in fact they’re merely calling for the customer to initiate a fresh postpaid contract, complete with a subsidised handset. An honest exchange would also offer a SIM-only deal that would offer far more data for far less money in the absence of a new device.

Citizens Advice specifically calls out EE, Vodafone and Three, implying O2 does a better job on this matter. It reckons these four million mugs are being overcharged, on average, by £22 per month, which seems about right. It also found that most of the time we’re paying more for the handset by getting it subsidised by the operator than if we just bought it on the open market, but there’s no surprise there.

“It is unacceptable that mobile providers are knowingly overcharging customers for phones they already own,” said Gillian Guy, Chief Exec of Citizens Advice. “We’ve heard a lot of talk from government and the regulator but now we need action. Other companies have already stopped doing this so we’re looking for these three major providers to follow suit. In the meantime, consumers should check their phone bills to see if they can save money with a SIM-only contract or upgrade to a new phone.”

Like most studies accusing utilities of ripping off their customers this ultimately comes down to telling them not to be lazy and check their contract every now and then. It’s not difficult to give yourself a reminder to renegotiate your contract when it expires so those who don’t should receive limited sympathy. On the other hand, from an industry that constantly wrings its hands about churn, this is hardly an example of customer service best practice.

EE breaks out the tractor for 2019 5G launch

EE has confirmed it will re-farm 3G mobile services in 2100 MHz spectrum band to boost 4G experience and lay the foundations to hit the 5G on-switch next year.

While it has generally been accepted the European telcos are lagging behind North America and Asia in the 5G race, EE is attempting to show you cannot bundle the entire block under the banner of boresome. In targeting 2019, EE joins the likes of Telia leaving the vast majority of European competitors in the trailing peloton.

“Our customers want a fast and reliable 4G connection, and that’s what we’re working to give them,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer business.

“We are using the investment we made in 3G spectrum nearly 15 years ago to give customers today a great experience with the latest smartphones on 4G, and build our foundation for 5G in 2019. We’re constantly evolving, and the customer experience of 5G will be dictated by the quality of the 4G network underneath.”

Looking at the 4G side of things first, over the next six months 500 towers will be switched over from 3G to 4G. The announcement keeps the telco on track to power down 3G by 2022, an objective which was seemingly accidentally announced during 5G world at the Excel this June by CTIO Howard Watson. The sites which are being converted have been identified as the ‘hotspots’ across the UK, those areas where there is the greatest demand for mobile connectivity.

Some of EE’s more advanced sites already support carrier aggregation technology, allowing EE to combine spectrum from multiple spectrum bands to improve customer experience, though the re-farmed 3G spectrum to support five carrier aggregation (5CA). Only newer smartphones will be able to experience this 5CA bonanza, but it will certainly continue to improve the 4G experience.

Moving onto the 5G side of things, the commitment is quite vague in that it is nothing more than 2019, though EE is certainly one of the exceptions to the European sluggish 5G trend. Finnish telco Telia is another which announced last week it would launch commercial 5G services at the beginning of 2019, though considering the technology expertise Finland has in Nokia, this announcement is perhaps less surprising.

For EE, the plan is to make use of the upgraded sites with the maximum amount of 4G spectrum, with 5G sitting on top. Considering 5G is a technology which will aid the telcos in dealing with the extraordinary demand which is developing in some city centres, this makes sense.

What is worth noting is these are only pockets of the country; the 5G dream will not be experienced by the majority, though it is another tool for the marketing department to preach about. Three has been connecting more of its network to BT exchanges ahead of 5G, though this is ahead of a 2020 launch. Vodafone won plenty of spectrum at the latest auction, though it is also targeting 2020. O2 has questioned whether any launches before 3GPP’s Release 16, due in December 2019 and would set the scene for standalone architecture, is actually 5G in any case.

Getting the opportunity to boast about 5G services, despite them being incredibly limited, 12 months before its three competitors is a significant boost for EE. We expect it will dominate advertising campaigns, conference speeches and PR stunts for the next couple of years. It’s a message the marketing team will not get bored of until another telco can say the same.

A final question worth asking is whether this is enough to recapture its position at the top of the market share rankings, a spot which has been held by O2 for the last couple of quarters. All will depend on how much of a premium EE decides to charge customers for 5G, and we suspect it will take advantage of the situation. With a monopoly on 5G and lost fortunes to recover, we suspect EE will put the really pointy shoe on.