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EE and BT Aim to Offer 5G Mobile Anywhere in the UK by 2028

Wednesday, July 14th, 2021 (9:15 am) - Score 2,448
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Mobile operator EE and broadband ISP giant BT have today pledged to offer ultrafast 5G mobile solutions “across the entire UK” by 2028 and to “fuse” their mobile, Wi-Fi and fibre broadband infrastructures to realise the potential of the country’s “first fully converged network.” But this isn’t quite universal coverage.

At present it’s difficult to know precisely how much of the UK has already been covered by the new generation of 5G mobile networks, partly because Ofcom has so far declined to report such progress and also partly because mobile operators have tended to be quite vague about their future coverage expectations. But EE’s decision today changes all that.

Today’s announcement will no doubt also reflect some positive impact from the £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN), which aims to help extend geographic 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025. But this seems likely to benefit 5G’s deployment too.

To extend mobile coverage BT’s mobile network, EE, is driving 4G connectivity deeper into rural areas, adding over 4,500 square miles of new signal by 2025. In parallel EE’s latest 5G network, which was first to launch two years ago, will grow to cover half of the UK population by early 2023, which they claim is “four years ahead of the UK Government’s ambition“.

NOTE: In 2017 the Government set a goal for 5G to cover the majority of the population by 2027, but this specific target was removed in their 2019 manifesto.

One catch here is that the headline uses of wording like “anywhere” or “across the entire UK” somewhat mask that the target here is actually for 5G to “pass the geographic reach of 4G to become the UK’s largest digital network by 2028, providing signal to over 90% of UK landmass.” So, not quite universal coverage, and then the expensive sounding “on demand” element feeds into this too (see below).

In order to reach this benchmark the new 700MHz 5G spectrum band, which was recently secured in Ofcom’s auction (here), will be deployed across the “majority” of EE’s sites to boost coverage. Redditch, Morecambe and Cramlington have been announced as the first UK towns to benefit (handset support allowing – e.g. Samsung Galaxy S21 and iPhone 12).

On top of that, BT is developing a wide range of ‘on demand’ coverage solutions. For example, Portable Cells will provide temporary mobile connectivity for customers “when they request it“, at a lower cost than building traditional cell sites and a fleet of Rapid Response Vehicles (RRV) will also be expanded to help in remote areas. BT is also targeting the greater use of air and space technologies, including Drones and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites via OneWeb (here).

Philip Jansen, CEO of BT Group, said:

“Over the past 18 months we’ve 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’re 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.”

One other key change on the mobile front is the operator’s confirmation today that older 3G services will also be retired (this currently represents just 2% of data traffic over EE’s network), with customers across BT brands phased off 3G by 2023. The spectrum will then be used to enhance 5G capacity. We expect other operators to follow a similar timetable.

Matt Warman, UK Digital Infrastructure Minister, said:

“Fast and reliable digital connectivity is crucial to our plan to build back better so I warmly welcome BT intensifying its plans to boost rural mobile coverage and speed up the roll out of revolutionary 5G.

BT’s vision for a cutting-edge network of combined fixed and wireless infrastructure, alongside the eventual phasing out of legacy 3G services, will help to diversify our telecoms market and safely deliver the amazing benefits of future internet-connected technologies for people and businesses.”

As for all that talk of convergence between fibre broadband, mobile and Wi-Fi – this has actually been part of a gradual process that started some years ago after BT’s merger with EE (we expect Virgin Media and O2 to follow suit, but they’ve got a lot of catching up to do). The goal here has always been to create an increasingly seamless connectivity solution between the different network platforms, which for BT has largely come via the form of their pricey HALO add-ons. But it remains unclear how much consumers actually desire such products, particularly as many like to keep their mobile services separate from broadband.

Nevertheless, BT has today confirmed the next sequence of technology milestones that will drive further 5G improvements and deliver network convergence. A new 5G core network control system will launch by 2023, built upon BT’s distributed “Network Cloud” infrastructure, combining all digital networks. A Standalone 5G (SA) network, which will deliver lower latency, is part of all this.

Increased use of machine learning will also be used to predict and resolve issues before they affect customers and automatically route services through the best available connection, which is a big step towards a fully converged and virtualised network. In addition, BT will increase their adoption of Neutral Host systems, which reflects third-party infrastructure that can be used by multiple networks (useful for boosting coverage in places like airports, stadiums etc.).

The operator also plans to conduct more trials of OpenRAN (O-RAN) in parts of their network, but they haven’t yet set out any major rollout plans like Vodafone (here). At present if a mobile operator wants to buy new network kit, then they can usually only choose from a handful of big suppliers (Nokia, Ericsson etc.). The O-RAN approach seeks to standardise the design and functionality of such kit and software, thus increasing the number of companies able to supply them via vendor-neutral hardware and software-defined technology (the RAN side covers infrastructure, masts and antennae).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
18 Responses
  1. Jack says:

    Fantastic news, 5G everywhere in the UK so no coverage dropouts roll on 2028…

  2. Me says:

    I don’t doubt they will. But it’ll come at a heavy price for the consumer in the name of expensive bills that increase annually. It has the monopoly on infrastructure so it’ll use it.

    1. 125us says:

      What monopoly is that?

    2. Me says:

      The monopoly on the infrastructure due to Open Reach owning and running exchanges and the majority of the fibre backbones the Cells use. And they are still linked to BT.
      However the new 50GB 1P mobile package would be good on a network like this.

    3. New_Londoner says:

      @Me
      If only Openreach prices were regulated so that this couldn’t happen ….. oh wait!

    4. 125us says:

      None of that’s true Me. EE use BT assets, the other cellcos go to great lengths to avoid using them. There is no infrastructure monopoly.

  3. Sam Perry says:

    I will believe it when i see it.. in the mean time to improve 4G would be great right now. Taller masts are the answer.

  4. Sonic says:

    I’d be happy to get a half-decent 4G signal in most places. We are so far away from having decent mobile data coverage in the UK that it’s a cruel joke. The difference between the coverage in the UK vs places like Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal is like chalk and cheese.

    As Sam Perry said, taller masts would make a huge difference.

  5. DP says:

    And if you look skywards, slightly to the East, you’ll see a squadron of flying pigs approaching us in rural Scotland.

    1. Gary says:

      Yep, no way unless they plan to build thousands of masts, 4g is patchy and 5g has a shorter range.

  6. Oache says:

    By 2028 will have 10G,and still complaining about 4G.The industry is more focused on revenue then actually improving the actual network.

    1. Gary says:

      If the range keeps getting smaller to give more speed it won’t make a jot of difference what G number we are at.

  7. Robert Green says:

    We have heard all this before. I made the mistake of migrating my mobile service to EE some years ago before BT took over EE and it was so bad that I moved to O2

    1. Gary says:

      Situational I guess, I swapped from o2 to EE for mobile and 4g broadband.

      The o2 products on offer were frankly a joke by comparison.

      Tried the other operators sims before switching and none of the others could even give me a passable phone signal.

  8. Gabin Davies says:

    There’s 5G blanketing my area,but at peak times it often falls back to 3G. Think when mobile towers get busy there range decreases.

    Actually 3G is quite good as seems reliable, not he fastest but consistent. Must be getting old. Lol.

  9. A Jarvis says:

    Some of us don’t forget the day we read the CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) headlines deciding in favour of the BT/EE merger with absolute disbelief/incredulity but also alongside it, Ofcom’s proposal to be ‘technology agnostic’, and the Advertising Standards authority decision to allow hybrid copper products to be described as ‘Fibre’, both clearly favouring/in the interests of BT’s ancient sweated legacy copper carcass FTTC/’pointless’ G.fast networks.

    Hindsight has shown both to be the wrong CMA decision, in competition terms, for the longer term.

    The Competition and Mergers authority (incredulously, though more likely deliberately for other overarching security reasons) concluded that BT and EE didn’t compete in the same markets, allowing the merger to take place between BT and EE and this, (as shown again by this headline on ispreview) has been shown to be wholly wrong by the way BT have announced their converged plans EE and BT Retail, and here, more so Openreach’s converged plans.

    In a word, a decision that seemed even then, a complete stitch-up of top-level corruption by vested interests, and looks at least, proven to be the case now, it’s either that or complete incompetence where no one at the CMA used any technical foresight and the latter just doesn’t seem credible.

    In a word, it was obvious the convergence route BT would take if a merger was allowed.

    Separate markets? Pull the other one, CMA.
    And yes, it still annoys me today.

    1. 125us says:

      You’re slipping Adam, you forgot to say ‘obfuscated’.

      The ASA decision was in response to Virgin calling HFC fibre, and the DSL operators happily accepted the ruling – but you knew that already, didn’t you?

  10. Ian Johnson says:

    What a JOKE they cant even supply 4g and even a phone signal in the pe14 7 area. Thats why i left them and went with tesco / 02 who can only just get a signal from them. BT spout some bull S**T at times. The need to upgrade the fibre too. What a joke

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