BT wants a piece of Skynet

As if things weren’t dystopian enough these days, BT is teaming up with a couple of satellite companies to get involved in the Skynet defence system.

It should be stressed that this isn’t necessarily the same kind of thing depicted in the Terminator movie series, but the shared name is still somewhat unnerving. In fact the UK has been using the name Skynet for some of its defence satellites since the 60s, so maybe that was James Cameron’s inspiration.

Skynet 6 doesn’t seem to involve any cybernetic humanoid killing machines, but the government could just be saving them for version 7. BT, NSSLGlobal and Viasat have decided to team up to bid for some of the action before the Ministry of Defence gets too carried away. Specifically they want to provide SATCOM services, specifically the Service Delivery Wrap component of Skynet 6, which is expected to be awarded in 2022.

“The combined strengths of this new alliance will bring leading edge technical expertise to the MOD across maritime, air, land, space and cyber environments,” said Ed Stainton, Director of Major Government at BT. “We will build on a strong innovation culture, and access to best-of-breed technologies to work collaboratively with our alliance partners, to deliver military-grade, mission-critical communications services to the MOD and other government departments.”

Not content with potentially sealing the fate of mankind BT, via EE, is working with Nokia to build what they claim is the world’s first 4G LTE Air-to-Ground network for emergency services. The purpose of it is to directly connect emergency services on the ground with those flying about the place. While there’s no explicit mention of killer drones, they could presumably be connected too, when the time comes.

“We’re thrilled to partner with Nokia to build a first-in-class and ground-breaking 4G Air-to-Ground network for emergency services across the UK,” said Richard Harrap, Managing Director ESN at EE. “Our deployment of this reinforces our network leadership as the UK’s biggest and fastest mobile network, and harnesses Nokia’s deep expertise in network equipment and installation of an Air-to-Ground solution.”

UK telcos to welcome back the masses as the high street reopens

All four of the UK’s mobile network operators (MNOs) will reopen a portion of their retail footprint soon, but fibre broadband player Virgin Media will remain closed permanently.

While the country holds its breath in the hope the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is in the past, the battered and bruised high street reopens. Telecoms is seemingly one of the few industries to navigate the last few months without material damage to operations, but reopening retail footprints is a welcome sign of some semblance of normality.

UK telecoms presence on the high street
Telco Number of stores Status
BT/EE 650 All stores to be reopened as Government guidelines permit. Phased reopening plan to begin on 15/6/2020
Vodafone 412 65 stores open on 15/6/2020, plans to open another 300 in coming weeks. All to reopen, but central London to remain closed for the moment
Three 320 250 stores will be reopened on 15/6/2020. Stores in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will open at a later date
O2 450 Some stores in England will be reopened on 15/6/2020, though no details on how many. Stores in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will remain closed for the time being
Virgin Media 53 All stores will remain permanently closed with the team prioritising online sales

What is worth noting is that while the doors will be opened operations have of course been adjusted to protect staff and customers.

“Keeping our customers and retail colleagues safe is our number one priority,” said Max Taylor, Consumer Director of Vodafone UK. “This is why we have put in weeks of planning, taking time to talk to people returning to store and listening to feedback so everyone feels comfortable and has confidence in the measures we have put in place.

“We’ve seen in other countries, such as Italy and Spain, that some customers prefer to go in store rather than call us or chat online and we are keen to meet this need. Our phased approach means we can offer a personalised, local service and start to re-boot the high street, while at the same time not forgetting those who still want to be helped from home.”

Vodafone has introduced several new rules to minimise the risk. Stores have been re-organised to ensure social distancing, staff will be on a rota so they are always with the same colleagues and only contactless payments will be taken. Interestingly enough, no devices will be on display for the immediate future.

While completely understandable, this is somewhat of a hindrance to the business and the general public. When spending north of $1000 on a smartphone, customers will want to see and feel the device. It might add comfort for the individual to physically touch the device prior to purchase, perhaps explaining one of the reasons the high street presence is so important to the MNOs and why Virgin Media decided to permanently close its own retail footprint.

Virgin Media pointed to the increased prominence of online sales channels over the last few years, few people will want to physically inspect a wifi router prior to purchase, while maintenance will always take place in the home not a store.

Although not every store will reopen immediately, it does appear there are no permanent closures of high street stores as a result of COVID-19 for the MNOs.


Will consumers ever be comfortable purchasing a smartphone without holding it?

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Three has also introduced several new rules to its stores in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While we know our stores will look and feel very different, we’re looking forward to reopening our doors so that we can start to serve our customers on high streets and local communities once more,” said Elaine Carey, Chief Commercial Officer of Three UK.

Floor stickers will help remind customers of the recommended two-metre social distancing rules, staff will be advised not to touch customer handsets unless completely essential and, depending on the size of the store, limited numbers of customers will be allowed inside.

This is a slight change, but the telco industry is returning to some prospect of normality. That said, this is an industry which has navigated the storms without any serious impact to operations.

Advertising watchdog slaps down EE’s claims it is the best

UK MNO EE has been told it can no-longer display adverts which claim it has the best network in the UK by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

With a series of posters, websites and social media posts, EE managed to irritate Three with claims it was the best network in the UK, being ‘unrivalled’ and ‘unbeatable’. Three suggested the use of RootMetrics awards were not relevant and the small print was either absent or insufficiently prominent.

Although not all the complaints have been upheld, the ASA has stated EE is not able to claim it is the best network around without more consumer-friendly measurements, while the claim ‘Number 1. Network’ can be interpreted in so many different ways it could be considered misleading.

The ASA statement reads:

While we recognised the Rootscore [RootMetrics] report rated EE as the best mobile network operator, using various objective measures of their infrastructural network performance, because consumers could understand the claims “unbeatable”, “unrivalled” and “No.1 Network” more broadly to relate to the network operator and to take account of both objective measures of network performance and subjective consumer views of the service the mobile providers provided, we considered that EE should have made clearer that the claims “No.1 Network”, “unbeatable” and “unrivalled” related specifically to the report.

While the adverts cannot be used in their current form, and the telcos are regularly caught intentionally misleading consumers, this is one where you have to have a bit of sympathy for EE.

For those who are in the telecoms industry, the RootMetrics reports are perfectly adequate for measuring the performance of networks against each other. If EE was to make such as claim, using the report as evidence, at an industry conference, few would break stride. On performance metrics, such as download speed, availability and latency, EE does regularly feature as the best in the industry, though this is apparently not enough to validate it in the eyes of the ASA.

How UK operators are helping customers during the COVID-19 outbreak

With telecommunications now acting as the foundation for almost every element of society, how telcos react to the on-going coronavirus outbreak will be critically important.

Although the UK Government has stopped short of measures implemented on the continent, at least at the time of writing, this week has seen a much sharper response to the global pandemic. With movements becoming increasingly limited, the telecommunications networks will become more critical, but what are each of the telcos doing in reaction.

Each of the telcos have made slightly different concessions to customers, though we suspect the plans will looks remarkable similar in a couple of weeks. Each will likely learn from competitors as none will want to look like they are doing less for customers than rivals.

Vodafone

At Group level, CEO Nick Read announced a number of measures to be applied across the European footprint.

Capacity is being increased to deal with the new spikes in internet traffic, Vodafone has said it has seen a 50% increase already, while consumers accessing government-supported healthcare websites and educational resources will be able to do so without worry about data consumption.

In terms of working with the Government, Vodafone has said it will offer anonymised data, where legally permitted, to aid in tracking people’s movements and the spread of COVID-19. Government departments have also been offered the opportunity to deliver targeted text messaging where technically possible.

To assist its own supply chain, Vodafone has said European suppliers will be paid in 15 days, instead of the customary 30 to 60 days.

From a scientific perspective, Vodafone’s DreamLab, a specialist app that uses smartphones’ data processing capacity to help cancer research projects while users are asleep, will receive a £200,000 cash injection from Group to repurpose the app to support research into antiviral properties.

Elsewhere within the Group, Vodafone Italy Foundation has donated €500,000 to support the Buzzi Foundation and the Italian Red Cross, Vodafone Czech Foundation’s emergency app Zachranka is pushing out public health alerts to its 1.3 million users and the remaining business units are all creating initiatives to help young people gain access to their digital learning platforms.

Virgin Media

From March 23rd, Virgin Media’s postpaid customers will be offered unlimited minutes to landlines and other mobile numbers, as well as a 10 GB data boost for the month at no extra cost. For broadband, any data caps on legacy products will be lifted.

In terms of technicians and home visits, Virgin Media has now set-up procedures to protect its own employees. Three days before a scheduled visit to a customer’s home, a text will be sent to ask if anyone living at their property has been asked to self-isolate or has flu-like symptoms. If the answer is yes, the appointment will be re-arranged for two weeks later. 30 minutes prior to the appointment, the technician will phone the customer to ask the same questions.

Although this will come as little comfort to those customers who are in need of a technician, the precautions are completely understandable. In these cases, new customers will be sent a self-install QuickStart pack which will hopefully mean a technician is not needed. Vodafone has not responded to questions to what the plan is should a technician be the only option.

O2/Telefonica UK

Like many other telcos, O2 has said all NHS UK websites will be ‘zero rated’, meaning any data used on these sites won’t count towards a customer’s monthly allowance, while it will make efforts to help those who are not able to pay their monthly bill. Customers who are concerned about the impact coronavirus will have on their monthly income are urged to call 202 to discuss the situation.

Little has been said on what work will be done to ensure the network remains resilient during the period of heightened pressure. This seems odd, as the O2 network shut down in certain areas this week, not related to increased internet traffic or congestion. Some customers might want more reassurances considering the dependence on communications infrastructure over the immediate future.

Elsewhere in the Telefonica Group, the Spanish business unit has said it will add 30 GB of mobile data to all Fusion and Movistar convergence customers for the next two months.

BT/EE/Openreach

In response the potential of increased strain on the network, BT is seemingly not that worried; the following is an extract from the website addressing the immediate challenges:

We have more than enough capacity in our UK broadband network to handle mass-scale homeworking in response to COVID-19. Our network is built to accommodate evening peak network capacity, which is driven by data-heavy things like video streaming and game downloads, for example.

By comparison, data requirements for work-related applications like video calls and daytime email traffic represent a fraction of this. Even if the same heavy data traffic that we see each evening were to run throughout the daytime, there is still enough capacity for work applications to run simultaneously.

This is a confident position to take, though the team has also said it will prioritise emergency calls and systems supporting emergency services such as the NHS, Airwave and the Emergency Services Network (ESN), critical national infrastructure and vulnerable customers, should the network come under intolerable pressure.

The BT Group has not unveiled any new measures for consumer customers yet, though it has put in additional procedures for enterprise customers due to the increased demand for home working.

The enterprise business unit has said it will work with customers to provide short-term upgrades for network capacity, increased virtual private network (VPN) connectivity, additional conferencing and collaboration tools, as well as call routing/forwarding solutions to divert calls to home phones or mobiles.

Three UK

Although Three UK does not seem to have introduced any additional policies in respect to the coronavirus outbreak, it does already have several initiatives which could prove to be quite useful. For example, free home delivery for customers and Three Store Now, which is a live stream to connect customers to in-store assistants for demos or to discuss potential purchases.

Sky

In response to almost all major sporting events being cancelled, Sky has said it will allow customers to ‘pause’ Sky Sports subscriptions without any additional charges. With the Premier League being suspended until early April, England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka cancelled and PRO14 Rugby postponed for the foreseeable future, there will certainly be a shortage of programming for this element of the premium TV offering.

On the broadband front, although Sky has reiterated it believes its service will be consistent, it does not need to make any announcements regarding data caps, like operators in the US, as these limitations are very rare in the UK market.

UK’s £1 billion Shared Rural Network is going ahead

The Shared Rural Network is an innovative idea from the UK Government, and now it is ready to roar forward, promising 95% geographical coverage by 2025.

The agreement will be signed by the CEOs of the four UK MNOs today, cementing down a £532 million investment from the telcos which will be bolstered by an additional £500 million from the UK Government. As well as eliminated total ‘not spots’ in the connectivity landscape, the Government has also said the deal will improve connectivity for 280,000 households and 16,000km of roads across the country.

“For too many people in the countryside a bad phone signal is a daily frustration,” said Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden. “So today we’re delivering on the Prime Minister’s 100-day promise to get a £1 billion landmark deal signed with industry to end poor and patchy mobile rural coverage.”

While this is not the first example of a Government pushing through shared infrastructure to improve connectivity coverage, it is a heavy financial commitment. The £1 billion will be used to construct and maintain the network over the foreseeable future and is a win for the bureaucrats. There aren’t many governments around the world who have been this successful in convincing fierce rivals to play nice alongside each other.

That said, there were rumours about a splinter group over the last few weeks. Although the telcos have seemingly been very open-minded about the collaboration, rumours emerged to suggest BT was being an awkward partner.

As the telco with the widest coverage across the UK, BT/EE has the most to lose should telco neutral infrastructure become more widespread. As part of the Shared Rural Network negotiations, the telcos were supposed to be opening-up their own infrastructure to rivals though some sort of compensation would be part of the agreement. BT has been negotiated hard, to such a degree a splinter group between the other three MNOs was suggested, to create a shared network without BT.

With the signatures soon to be on this agreement, it seems the bickering has been negotiated out, though it demonstrates how delicate a procedure this initiative was and is.

Nevertheless, this should be taken as the gold standard for collaboration, not only for intra-industry benefits but also public-private relationships. It is an excellent example of a government understanding the pain-points of an industry and responding with a logical solution which not only benefits the industry but consumers and businesses.

The success of this venture could also have interesting ripple effects in other regions around the world.

Africa is a continent which has always struggled in the digital economy, aside from a few small areas. Low ARPU and increasingly expensive demands for network deployment paint a difficult picture when it comes to commercial feasibility, though telco-neutral networks could be an option. We suspect there will be moneymen across the world watching the UK experiment closely with an eye on replication for profits in developing nations.

Of course, it is not only the developing nations who could benefit from such initiatives. The US, for example, is a vast nation with some very sparsely population regions. The digital divide can be as dramatic here as other less economically fruitful nations, and this could be an interesting solution.

Aside from the financial and societal benefits, this initiative could also create opportunities for more embryonic technologies in the telco world.

“Network sharing is a relatively new concept to operators, and they need the tools to enable them to successfully create infrastructure that doesn’t compromise on performance,” said Steve Papa, CEO at Parallel Wireless.

“OpenRAN (radio access network) is a new approach to building networks, being trialled today by major operator groups, which can make technology from different suppliers work together, and reduces overall complexity and costs. Operators and the government will need to strongly consider new approaches such as OpenRAN, if they want to accelerate their vision of building affordable shared networks, to close the digital divide.”

Although there is excitement about the prospect of OpenRAN as a disruptive force in the industry, few telcos want to drive forward aggressively with the technology being at such an early stage of development. With the Shared Rural Network, some of the risk might be mitigated, however.

The Shared Rural Network is designed to tackle connectivity in some of the more sparsely populated areas. The telcos should view this as an opportunity; is there a better time to trial a technology which could go wrong when there are likely to be very few customers around?

Industry Comments:

Mark Evans, CEO of O2

I’m proud of the work we’ve done to secure the Shared Rural Network agreement, ensuring customers living in rural areas will be able to get the fast and reliable coverage they need and deserve. The collaboration between the industry, government and Ofcom should be seen as a leading example of how to deliver infrastructure investment and we look forward to now rolling the Shared Rural Network out as quickly as possible

Philip Jansen, CEO of BT

High-speed mobile connectivity is a central part of modern life whether you live and work in a city centre or in the countryside. Building out fast and reliable access to 4G across the country is a national mission and we’re playing a leading role, collaborating with government and the other mobile network operators in the UK, to make this happen. The Shared Rural Network is something we can all be proud of

Dave Dyson, CEO of Three

The Shared Rural Network is a game-changer for the country with coverage from each of the four operators expanding to at least 90% of the UK’s geography

Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK

A rural postcode should not be a barrier to receiving a decent mobile signal. Together, we have created a programme that is unmatched anywhere in the world. It will mean an end to mobile ‘not spots’ for people in the more remote areas whether they are at home, at work or on the move. We will now get on with the job of delivering it

5G is good, but perhaps not worth upgrading just yet

New research is suggesting London 5G speeds are getting the promised boost, though the overall experience might disappoint a few.

Global Wireless Solutions, a US network benchmarking, analysis and testing firm, released its examination of the London networks of EE, Vodafone and O2, and while there is success evident in the first months, there is still plenty of work to be done.

“The spikes in the test data reveal that promises of faster speeds can be delivered, but ultimately, it’s the consistency and reliability that is most important to consumers,” said Paul Carter, CEO of Global Wireless Solutions.

“Based on the limited number of sites with 5G antennas combined with the distance constraints of higher frequency 5G signals, it’s going to be a challenge to get 5G access in buildings.

“Given that the mobile network operators have a significant rollout ahead of them to fully realise the potential of 5G, we might also benefit from a review of restrictions governing signal mast height and placement to allow more antenna sites in more convenient locations, rather than just placing them on rooftops.”

According to the analysis, the MNOs are delivering the high-speed download experience which has been promised through 5G, though only if you are standing in the right place.

At St Pauls Cathedral, EE’s network delivered instantaneous peaks of over 470 Mbps, while 330 Mbps from O2 at Victoria Station and 320 Mbps from Vodafone in Belgrave Square also demonstrated the eye-watering speeds of these networks. These are cherry-picked examples from numerous tests throughout the city, though the trend was encouraging; 5G is delivering remarkable download speed upgrades.

What is worth noting, it this is not the gigabit download speeds promised, though you have to bear in mind these networks are operating in the world of non-standalone 5G. More will be delivered in the future as the technology progresses and matures.

This is of course encouraging, however there are two elements which dampen the parade. Firstly, the availability of these download speeds and secondly, latency.

On the latency side, Global Wireless Solutions has indicated there is no meaningful upgrade from 4G connectivity. This is not entirely surprising, as without a 5G core the full-suite of latency services will not be available, though one might have expected an incremental upgrade.

Secondly, the team has noted the drop-off rate is high. By making use of higher-frequency airwaves for 5G connectivity, coverage will be shorter. There is no way around this, the laws of physics dictate the state of play here. However, as 5G is currently being built on existing passive infrastructure, designed for 4G spectrum with larger coverage cones, the problem is unavoidable.

Over the next couple of months, governments and regulators will have to be engaged to ensure the 5G experience can be delivered. Rules on the deployment of active infrastructure will have to be massaged, as relying on rooftop infrastructure to deliver connectivity will not work everywhere. This is a bureaucratic challenge, and one which is being discussed behind closed doors.

All of this presents an interesting challenge for the telcos; how do you engage the consumer with an experience which is wholly inconsistent?

The telcos will have to be very careful. Arguably, it is more damaging to steal a customer and not deliver on the experience than not to have the customer at all. Burnt bridges are very difficult to repair after all, especially with the core mobile connectivity offering becoming increasingly commoditised.

Ultimately, 5G will be a necessity for the consumer. Data consumption habits are aggressively growing and 4G will not be able to meet the demands, both in terms of speed and network congestion. That said, the 5G proposition does look hard to justify for the moment. Compatible devices are incredibly expensive, and the network experience looks very limited. It does not appear to be worth the extra expenditure just yet.

BT starts making noise about convergence with Halo launch

Convergence is a proven business model and now the slumbering giant of the UK telco market is starting to head in the right direction.

While there is already a convergence product available to customers, to date there has been questionable success. Unlike continental Europe, convergence has not really gathered steam in the UK, though BT is attempting to shift the status quo.

“I feel this is a once in a lifetime shift for BT in the UK,” CEO Philip Jansen said. “BT Plus has been a huge success, but this is a modest, first convergence product.”

The new convergence product will be known as Halo, available to both consumer and enterprise customers. The product will include the fastest available broadband service, unlimited mobile data, with the option to upgrade to 5G, a team of customer service agents which do home visits and access to the wifi presence throughout the country. Prices have not been announced just yet.

While this is a promising move forward, there are still challenges which need to be addressed.

Firstly, does the UK consumer understand the concept or benefits of convergence. And secondly, can a convergence product be successful when you have two distinct brands?

Starting with the concept of convergence, perhaps there is a misunderstanding about the definition and benefits because the telcos have not made enough, or the right, noises about it. Up until recently, BT was the only UK telco which had the assets to create a genuine convergent product portfolio. There was of course a significant advertising campaign behind BT Plus, the first iteration of convergence, though arguably this had limited success.

Before too long, more details will be unveiled regarding a brand advertising campaign. BT will have to be smart to communicate the benefits very clearly.

Looking at the BT business, this is where the team has a big decision to make; can convergence work when you do not have a single brand? EE is king of mobile, but questionable on broadband, while BT is the broadband leader with a suspect mobile offering. More has to be done to marry the two brands together.

An interesting announcement which has been made which will help to address this challenge concerns the high-street. The BT branding and customer service team will have a much more prominent presence in every high-street store moving forward. This will help tie the two brands together in the minds of the consumer, though you still have to question whether convergence can be successful with two distinct brands.

Ultimately, this is a good move forward by BT. There is still a sense more could be done and said, though it is heading in the right direction.

BT has an opportunity few others in the UK can compete with. It has the widest and best-performing mobile network, a dominant broadband network and a wifi presence with more than five million points of presence. Over the next couple of months, the TV service will be re-launched adding another element to the mix.

Should the team be able to create a product which is attractively priced, supported by a brand marketing campaign which clearly communicates the benefits, BT should be untouchable in the UK’s connectivity segment.

EE plugs transport hubs as priority for 5G

As telcos jostle for top-spot in the 5G stakes EE has added further colour to its network deployment plans, with the UK’s busiest transport hubs taking priority.

Having switched on, albeit very limited, 5G coverage in 20 cities around the UK, EE is surging ahead to expand the coverage of the high-speed airwaves. As is the standard approach to deploying a new network, the busiest hubs for connectivity are first on the agenda, with the green light lit in London Waterloo, Liverpool Street and Charing Cross train stations.

“Switching on 5G in more busy places will help to keep our customers connected to the things that matter to them the most,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer division.

“Our engineers are building new 5G sites every day and increasing capacity on 4G sites – all part of our ambition to keep all of our customers connected 100% of the time.”

Although some might be a bit irked that train stations are getting 5G exposure rather than their home or office, it does make sense for the telcos. These are areas which are subject to congestion and notable network strain during peak hours, and let’s not forget, 5G offers greater spectral efficiency to ensure more devices can be connected simultaneously. Addressing these network congestion challenges will be a key objective to improve customer experience.

Aside from the three stations named above, Highbury and Islington station, New Cross Gate Overground station and Shoreditch High Street Overground station are further London sites which will be given the 5G connectivity buzz. Outside of London, Market Street on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Belfast’s Great Northern Mall and City Hall, Cardiff’s St David’s shopping centre and Morgan Arcade and Albert Square in Manchester will also get the 5G upgrade.

The coverage map is gradually becoming more attractive for those considering a 5G contract, though there are still concerns about whether enough attention is being paid to 4G networks.

“5G will undoubtably unlock a range of exciting new consumer and business use cases,” said Ingo Flomer, CTO at Cobham Wireless. “However, there aren’t many 5G handsets available and in use today. Commuters still rely on 4G to access work emails or enjoy video streaming while on the move.

“Getting reliable 4G mobile coverage is still a challenge for commuters on lots of the UK’s most popular rail routes, as well as in stations, but it needn’t be such a hurdle. Solutions exist that can overcome the challenge of providing reliable voice and data coverage in stations and rail lines – an important part of the passenger experience.

“There will come a time when blanket 5G coverage is needed. Now, however, it is important to deliver adequate 4G mobile coverage to guarantee quality of service for consumers, and support business and operator growth in all areas in the UK.”

Flomer has a genuine point. Everyone who regularly uses public transport across the UK, or use stations outside of London, will have come across the same frustrations. Inconsistent and unreliable 4G connectivity.

According to the latest Ofcom Connected Nations report, only 66% of the UK landmass is deemed to have access to ‘good’ 4G data services from all four telcos. As you can see from the table below, EE is offering the best breadth of coverage, though there is still some work to do.

Telco Geographic coverage
EE 84%
O2 74%
Three 78%
Vodafone 79%
All four 66%

Those who live and work in the city will not realise some of these frustrations. The 4G coverage map has not been completely filled in yet, and some will still fall through the gaps created by the digital divide.

One of the promises of the connected world is mobility. The idea of improving accessibility to the internet and embedding connectivity in more devices is to make people more productive and enable more people to work anywhere. Employees and employers alike will certainly be interested in this message, though the network does have to be there to fulfil the promise.

Right now, there are still too many holes in the networks spread across the UK. Some communities are being left behind, while transportation links, not just the hubs, need to be given adequate attention.

In fairness to the telcos, this is a difficult equation to balance. Bank accounts do have their limit and some companies are being asked to spend across a range of different areas. Compromises have to be made, though some might question whether the telcos have found the right mix yet.

5G might be grabbing the attention, but it will be 4G which will be the most important networks for years to come. 5G smartphones will remain too expensive for many, while it will take years to get the 5G network coverage map anywhere near as extensive as 4G. It is promising to see EE’s network gathering momentum, but we need to ensure 4G expansion is still a priority for telcos.

EE forced to backtrack on 5G data tariffs

It does appear EE has been forced into a rethink on 5G data pricing, as the firm launches an unlimited data offering to keep pace with rivals in the UK.

Like hamburgers at breakfast, the 5G tariffs didn’t look right to start with. The price points were too expensive for today’s cash conscious consumer who expects the world for tuppence. EE might have been first out of the gate to capitalise on the growing 5G euphoria and earn the right to boast about being first, but it has been forced to backtrack a little.

The only issue with being first is that you give everyone else a taste of what is on the table. Even if EE had nailed the proposition and priced it perfectly, it left the door open to be embarrassed by rivals to be undercut. If the aim of the game was to secure post-paid subs and look to long-term ROI, EE left itself exposed to a cheap shot.

That said, it has now seemingly rectified the situation.

When it first launched in May, prices were tiered depending on download limits. Not only did it not look practical, limits would be reached relatively easily, it was expensive. Admittedly the price of 5G devices were factored in, but with rivals presenting options which were easier on the wallet, a new approach was needed.

“If you want an unlimited data plan, you should get it on the UK’s best network, with the coverage and speeds that let you make the most of it,” said Edward Goff, Marketing Director at EE.

“Our new unlimited range offers customers the ultimate smartphone experience in more places across the UK than any other network, all with no speed caps and great swappable benefits like Amazon Prime Video and BT Sport.”

What is worth noting is that the unlimited offer for 5G-SIM only plans is still expensive.

MNO Price
EE £44 a month
Vodafone £30 a month
Three £22 a month
O2 Unknown

Each of the telcos have taken their own approach to data pricing. EE offers 5G SIM-only contracts for £44 a month in the most traditional manner. Vodafone has offered tariffs on speed tiers with the £30 a month tier offering the ‘fastest available speed’, which might vary dependent on where you are. Three is offering 5G connectivity for free for anyone who has an unlimited 4G contract. The £22 a month deal is SIM-only.

O2 is the only one not to release pricing for its 5G data tariffs, being the last to market, though it certainly has taken the opportunity to undermine the promising progress made by rivals.

Although few in the EE offices will be happy to backtrack and have a rethink on the unlimited plans, it does now look to be in a very competitive position. It is the most expensive, but it does have the best network and most consistent, high download speeds. If performance is the measure of success in the consumers eyes, EE is certainly hitting the right notes.

Another factor to consider is the ‘swappables’ element of these deals. For those who sign-up to a 12-month SIM-only deal on 5G for £44 a month, three ‘swappable’ content deals will be included. Each month, customers will be able to elect which bundled content services they desire, ranging from zero-rated video data or music, additional roaming locations, BT Sport or Amazon Prime Video.

The team could probably do with negotiating a few more partnerships as it does look a bit thin on the ground, though it is a reasonable offer.

What we are yet to see from EE is an aggressive push towards the convergence game. Executives have been giving the same presentation at conferences for years, promising a seamless connectivity experience for customers through mobile, broadband and wifi assets, though there doesn’t seem to be much activity on the marketing front to link-up these elements in one conclusive offer.

Either there is something in the pipeline or this is a case of negligence. The combination of EE mobile and BT’s wifi and broadband assets would create a connectivity offering few could dream to compete with. Three and Vodafone are plugging into the convergence game with their own fixed wireless access (FWA) offerings, but EE seems to be lagging here. The opportunity to make noise is there but the team seem to be enjoying the uncomfortable silence.

EE is arguably the market leader in the UK, though thanks to O2’s MVNO relationships it can claim to be the network with the most mobile connections running across it. With the unlimited offer, bundles, biggest and best network coverage and BT’s wifi and broadband assets, EE has an opportunity to nail itself down as the top mobile provider in the UK.

Trying to pick out the winner in the UK’s 5G race is starting to get very difficult.

EE grasses on Three UK for its 5G advertising

Three UK has run an ad campaign claiming its 5G network is the only ‘real’ one. Unsurprisingly other 5G providers are unhappy about this and at least one had complained.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has been forced to take precious resource away from enforcing gender politics dogma to look into Three’s 5G ad campaign. The ASA confirmed to Telecoms.com that it has received six complaints about an ad by Three claiming to provide the only ‘real’ 5G, with one of them coming from BT.

We contacted EE, which provided the following statement: “Three’s claim to be the only real 5G network is entirely false, and deliberately aimed at misleading consumers. Our customers have been using real 5G since we launched the UK’s first 5G network, back in May.”

And, of course, we also spoke to Three UK, which gave us this statement: “Our advert is to inform consumers that we will offer the fastest 5G network, based on Three having three times as much 5G spectrum as any other operator. We are also the only operator to have 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum. ITU considers this the gold standard for 5G, enabling consumers to take full advantage of what 5G has to offer.”

It all seems to come down this 100 MHz contiguous block of spectrum and the value the ITU places on it in the context of 5G. Here’s a slide from a Nokia presentation titled Minimum Technical Performance Requirements for IMT-2020 radio interface(s) [i.e. 5G] that clearly state “The requirement for bandwidth is at least 100 MHz.” However it also states “The bandwidth may be supported by single or multiple RF carriers.”

Nokia IMT 2020 requirements slide

That caveat would appear to undermine Three’s claim that only its contiguous 100 MHz chunk meets the ITU’s minimum requirements. But when we put that to Three their spokesperson countered that, since carrier aggregation isn’t currently supported by 5G chipsets, that stipulation is irrelevant.

Three reckons this complaint is evidence that its competitors are worried about Three’s strong position in 5G spectrum, which is wonderfully ironic when you consider Three has spent a decade moaning about the opposite imbalance in 4G spectrum. Three is presumably OK with the situation now that things have apparently swung in its favour, so much so it was happy to provide us with a few slides.

The first offers a look at the current UK 5G spectrum situation, following the 3.4 GHz spectrum auction last year. Most of Three’s 5G spectrum is in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band, however, and we’re not sure what the ‘future’ bar signifies, but Three does seem to be at a distinct advantage. So much so that its competitors have apparent been moaning to Ofcom too, as quoted in the second Three slide. The last one represents the results of some Three testing, which is designed to show the unique download speed benefits of having 100 MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum.

Thee 5G slide 1

Thee 5G slide 2

Thee 5G slide 3

To be honest we find it hard enough to keep track of who has what spectrum, and why we should care, so we’re certainly not in a position to critique Three’s claims on a technical level. However they do seem to serve as a plausible defense of any claim it might make to have at least the potential to provide greater 5G download speeds than its competitors.

Where we still have some sympathy with the ASA complaint, however, is with the use of the term ‘real’. If Three had simply gone with ‘fastest’, as it did in the above statement, then EE probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. But by instead using the term ‘real’ Three seems to inferring rival 5G services are somehow illegitimate.

It will be down to the ASA to sift through the 5G standard, including the above ITU parameters, to determine whether or not only a 5G service that is able to call upon at least 100 MHz of contiguous qualifies. Since the ASA seems more concerned with thought policing these days we have to question whether it has retained the expertise needed to perform its supposedly core function.