EE outlined its initial launch plans for 5G in the UK. It will launch 5G in 2019, initially in six UK cities: London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester.
Ten more cities are earmarked for coverage soon afterwards, including Bristol, Coventry and Nottingham. EE’s first 1500 5G cell sites (about 7.5% of the total) cover about 15% of the population, and account for over 25% of EE’s total traffic. Their capacity will be upgraded to the maximum, with multi-carrier aggregated 4G as well as 40MHz of 5G in 3.4GHz. EE’s first 5G devices will be an own-branded home router, for 5G as a home broadband replacement; and several vendor-branded smartphones, although the brands have not yet been announced.
4G was meant to be evolutionary – the clue was in its technical name, LTE for Long Term Evolution – but when EE first turned 4G on in the UK in 2012, it felt more like a revolution. Suddenly, you tapped “play” on a video, and it just played; no buffering, no pixellation, no jittering, no pausing. It was something of an epiphany. When you upgraded from 3G to 4G, you could see straight away that you were getting something new and better.
5G is being touted by some in the industry as a revolution, but as EE’s plans illustrate, it’s more likely to feel like an evolution: a continuation of the improvements in mobile data performance and availability that have been coming on stream successively since 4G launched. 5G promises radically new capabilities enabled by ultra-low latency and massive connection density, but these will not be supported in the first phases of rollout. Early 5G will be focused on enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), and its principal improvement over 4G will be in the area of capacity.
It will take some finesse for EE to market this proposition successfully. Extra capacity is essentially a benefit for the operator, rather than the customer, enabling it to continue carrying its customers’ mobile data traffic into the 2020s as volumes continue to grow at an enormous pace. But operators need something to sell too, and the main customer benefit of increased capacity is improved reliability. When the network is less crowded, you’re more likely to get a good connection and you’re more likely to keep it.
Good enough. The problem there is that the logical corollary of “5G is more reliable” is “4G is not reliable enough”. EE was happy to live with the implication that 3G wasn’t reliable enough when it launched 4G, because it had become clear by then that 3G wasn’t reliable enough, and that unlocking pent-up demand for mobile data required a rapid replacement of 3G with 4G. Moreover, denigrating 3G made sense because EE’s competitors would be stuck with 3G for much longer, EE having established a year-long headstart in the UK by getting Ofcom’s permission to re-use its 1800MHz 2G spectrum for 4G. The circumstances this time are different. There is a lot of life left in 4G, and 4G will remain EE’s (and other operators’) principal infrastructure technology for at least the first half of the next decade. That being the case, it is very important to avoid denigrating 4G, even by implication.
EE’s early 5G customers will see something better than 4G; but the improvement is not likely to be as marked as it was for early 4G customers.
- Firstly, as with all previous Gs, 5G’s availability will be limited to the largest population centres. A lot of people live in those areas, but they also travel away from them, and they won’t have a 5G signal when they do.
- Secondly, we do not believe there will be a 5G iPhone when EE launches 5G, nor for a long time afterwards. This is a big difference from when EE launched 4G, when a compatible iPhone (5) was available straight away. It’s important because over half of EE’s 4G customers are using iPhones. At launch, those customers will be faced with a choice between their iPhone or 5G; and we doubt that EE is under any illusion about which way that choice is likely to go.
It is important for EE not to be beaten to market by its UK competitors with 5G. Its success was built on being first with 4G. Its customers value being up to date with the latest technology, and EE has made that a core element of its brand proposition. EE needs to launch 5G early and it needs to make a bit of a splash with it. Not too big a splash, though. 5G will not be a revolution compared with 4G, and it is not in EE’s interests to try and convince its customers otherwise. Otherwise, it risks alienating the majority of its customers, who will not be able to get the first 5G without ditching Apple; and it risks long-term damage to the 4G brand, which will remain EE’s principal proposition for some years to come.
If you want to learn more about this topic, or have any question on European Mobility, please contact John Delaney.