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BT and EE Hint at UK 5G Standalone Mobile Rollout for H2 2024

Monday, Mar 4th, 2024 (8:31 am) - Score 11,880

The Chief Security and Networks Officer of BT, Howard Watson, has hinted that EE may be in a position to begin their commercial deployment of 5G standalone (5G SA) mobile network technology during the second half of 2024. But they won’t have a better idea of the likely timing until this summer.

Most existing 5G networks are Non-Standalone (NSA), which means they’re partly reliant upon some older and slower 4G infrastructure. But SA networks are pure end-to-end 5G that can deliver improvements such as ultra-low latency times, greater energy efficiency, better upload speeds, network slicing, improved support for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, support for Voice over New Radio (VoNR or Vo5G) and increased reliability and security etc.

NOTE: Network slicing allows for multiple virtual network slices across the same physical network. Each slice is isolated from other network traffic to give dedicated performance, with the features of the slice tailored to the use case requirements (online gaming, enhanced mobile broadband etc.).

Vodafone officially became the first UK mobile operator to launch a commercial 5G SA network in a handful of cities during June 2023 (here), which was followed in February 2024 by O2 (VMO2) across 14 cities (here). The latter was particularly notable because the service came at no extra cost to existing customers, although in both cases 5G SA coverage is currently understood to be very patchy (i.e. you’re more likely to spot it in busy areas).

Similarly, BT via EE has been busy conducting lots of related 5G SA trials, although they’ve yet to formally announce the start of a commercial rollout. But a recent report on Telco Titans, via a Mobile World Live correspondent, has quoted Howard Watson as saying that a realistic timeline is sometime “later in this year” (H2).

Howard Watson said:

“We are ready. We’ve looked long and hard at 5G standalone. Yes, we can do pilots, yes, we can do trials, but we think actually we should wait a little bit longer to get the right device ecosystem and get some great services with slicing.”

The reality is that EE, like other mobile operators, typically start conducting their rollouts before they formally announce them (i.e. it’s a fair bet that a lot of the groundwork for this is already underway) and the operator often likes to achieve a good level of coverage BEFORE reaching that stage, unlike some of their rivals.

However, it will be interesting to see what approach EE takes when it does announce the launch, such as whether they’ll try to sell it as a premium package like Vodafone, or take the “at no extra cost” route, like O2. The mention of network slicing above may give us a hint, since they might aim to launch it alongside prioritised plans for mobile gaming, home broadband or business connectivity etc.

Ensuring the widest possible device support is also important, and Watson is clearly being mindful of that above too. For example, both O2 and Vodafone launched 5G SA without any support for modern iPhones, but there was no such issue with Samsung’s handsets.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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14 Responses
  1. Avatar photo No Name says:

    They will absolutely put it behind a higher subscription cost or add on.

    EE, the biggest and fastest network

    (If you give us enough money)

    £25 a month for 10Mbps speed cap 125GB and 2 RPI price rises. At least unlike BT Group’s landlines, we can all vote with our feet.

    1. Avatar photo Ivor says:

      you mean like how you have to pay extra for 5G? or rather, you don’t, because all plans can access it.

      If standalone is all about increased efficiency for the network operators, of course they’re going to offer it to all. I don’t see how it can be sold as an addon, it’s not like faster speeds or data allowances where there is a tangible benefit to the user

      I suspect VF’s decision is more about ensuring the “right” kind of user to begin with – if you’re paying for a top end plan you probably have a top end 5G phone (such as an iPhone or Samsung flagship) and those will be the devices they’ve tested and validated first.

    2. Avatar photo No Name says:

      Everyone gets access to 5G, but you pay for extra speed on EE, you do on vodafone too.

      Considering that slicing can dictate service levels, it will be something they charge for. Everyone will get access but you will have to pay to see an improvement.

      You also had to pay extra for 5G at launch, but we’ll just gloss over that.

    3. Avatar photo Phil says:

      No one want to pay extra for SA 5G it all conned and rip off. Remember 4G to 5G is free access but why should we all pay premium service from NSA 5G to SA 5G? Doesn’t make any sense to me!

    4. Avatar photo Ivor says:

      “No name” – perhaps I’ll make my point clearer.

      There’s a difference between selling basic access to the network and selling gimmicks on top. Basic SA allows EE to be more flexible with spectrum and coverage. It enables VoNR. There are solid reasons to (rapidly if not at launch) make it available to anyone with a compatible device.

      In fact you’ve proven my point by reminding us that 5G was “special” at launch. It was a brand new technology then, and they wanted to ensure people had the correct phones to take advantage. It wasn’t long before they just enabled it for all users.

      5G SA is different in that any modern handset can use it already.

      I appreciate these facts might get in the way of a good BT/EE bash but it has to be said.

    5. Avatar photo Billy Shears says:

      @Ivor “all plans can access it.”. If you have an EE subscription pack you’re excluded from 5G and limited to 25 Mbps. Even the full, expensive monthly subscriptions are speed limited so that there is little or no benefit to a 5G connection. Ok you can go elsewhere but that’s not the point.

      Unlike the other three operators EE doesn’t have their own consumer friendly (i.e, cheap) mvno. Unless there own 1pmobile and we don’t know.

  2. Avatar photo Phil says:

    Howard Watson said:

    “We are ready. We’ve looked long and hard at 5G standalone. Yes, we can do pilots, yes, we can do trials, but we think actually we should wait a little bit longer to get the right device ecosystem and get some great services with slicing.”

    Yeah rite, more likely to be 2030! UK always far too slow!

    1. Avatar photo Ivor says:

      are you missing out on anything with 5G NSA at the moment? Do you have anything to refute what Watson has said?

      Very few network operators globally have done it differently, and those tend to be newer operators with less to worry about, eg DISH wireless which is 5G only and must therefore be standalone. This has meant a very limited number of devices and a user experience that isn’t as great as it should be.

  3. Avatar photo Phil L says:

    So 5G was hyped with all the low latency PR and high speeds but 5G is little more currently than extra spectrum on top of 4G to give some higher headline speeds, if you are lucky. I’ve so far not seen anything faster on 5G than I can get on 4G. The last time I tried 5G it gave the exact same speed as 4G (switching between the two), about 20 Mbps, granted the signal wasn’t great but no improvement at all? So my phone stays locked to 4G, no point burning up extra battery power when I’m never going to notice the difference.

    When 4G first became a thing it was the same issue, released too early and all marketing. No calls could be made over 4G so the phone was using two radios all the time (battery used up faster) and speeds then were little better than 3G, so I just locked the phone to 3G and waited a few years until 4G came about properly.

    Of course what we will find out is when 5G SA arrives (it should have been this from day one), we will all be told how amazing it is but only supported on the latest devices, pushing another upgrade cycle for people.

    1. Avatar photo aled says:

      5G was marketed as a revolution and was introduced 5 years ago in the UK. the only major market impact so far is that phone operators have been able to sell more expensive phones and use more expensive patents (some very good offers on 4G are still around, particularly on Xiaomi).

      We’re still really only seeing 5G as effectively a single 4G+ speed frequency usually around 3.6GHz, which hasn’t really revolutionised anything except stadiums and busy train stations. If anything, virtually all the time when my phone fails to operate it says it’s connected to 5G (EE in London).

      It’s sad that 5 years in and we don’t really seem to have any 700MHz around, which will be a massive development in rural areas. Realistically though, it’ll take another 5 years to roll this out properly.

  4. Avatar photo Jamie Simms says:

    EE have been testing and rolling this out for a long time now waiting for the right product to launch this with. I have a feeling with this latest update this will be launched in September and will be available on the new Iphone and Ipad.

    There must be some technical reason why SA is not available on both Vodafone and O2 with Iphones

    1. Avatar photo Anon says:

      Apple just takes long to provision the settings. Best case 3 months, worst case up to 6 months. The carrier support has to be rolled out into the iOS updates. With the other vendors they can give special treatment and get it pushed ASAP.

  5. Avatar photo IPhone says:

    Do iPhones support this? If not it should be banned.

    1. Avatar photo Garyh says:

      Banning iphones is a bit harsh. Not likely to be a popular move.

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