5G Ultra — Vodafone Coins Another New Term

Alongside the commercial launch of its standalone 5G network last month, Vodafone introduced a new brand to the UK mobile market: 5G Ultra.

The moniker is supposed to reflect the enhancements that standalone 5G offers over the original, non-standalone flavour. Vodafone talks of a 25% improvement in device battery life, speeds 10 times faster than 4G, greater reliability in congested locations and enhanced population coverage of 1 million people from the get-go.

This is, of course, very welcome news for customers. The boost to battery life should be particularly well received if Vodafone can deliver on its ambitious claim: in CCS Insight’s recent consumer research in the UK, battery life was cited as the second most-important factor in people’s choice of mobile phone, behind only the price.

And Vodafone UK deserves credit for being among the first network operators in Europe to make the leap: only four others in the region have a commercial standalone 5G service up and running, according to CCS Insight’s latest quarterly analysis of the telecom operator market.

But does it really warrant the introduction of yet another name? The telecom industry is already awash with terms that few people care about and even fewer understand. Most people are only interested in getting a good-quality connection. 5G Ultra could bring unwelcome confusion and risks undermining what is now the “vanilla” 5G brand, which Vodafone has spent millions promoting.

The term is also a step in the opposite direction of a prediction I made last year that a leading telecom operator moves away from naming specific technologies in its marketing. My thinking was that this provider would position its services under a broad banner of connectivity, instead of using terms such as 4G, 5G, fibre and Wi-Fi. It would make things far easier for everyone to understand and I’m still hopeful it’ll happen soon.

Although I have reservations about the term “5G Ultra”, I can understand why Vodafone has done it. Launching standalone 5G is a major network upgrade and Vodafone is the first UK operator to do so. It’s also offering it for no extra charge to eligible customers, so I get that it’s trying to somehow gain kudos for its efforts.

Perhaps Vodafone could have just let the network improvements speak for themselves; but in such a competitive market as the UK, any marketing edge makes an important difference. And if Vodafone hadn’t opted to introduce a new name, one of its rivals probably would have.

However, with only two supporting phones (Samsung’s Galaxy S21 and Galaxy S22 series, which are powered by Samsung’s Exynos chipset), limited coverage beyond major cities and availability restricted to pay-monthly customers who signed up since February, Vodafone needs to tread carefully. All too often in the past, the mobile industry has fallen into the trap of overselling itself. I’m pleased Vodafone hasn’t gone into overdrive promoting 5G Ultra so far, but I do wonder whether it would have been better to have waited until it was more widely available.

It’ll be interesting to see what EE, O2 and Three decide to do when it’s their turn. Their best option may be to just stay quiet and let customers discover the improvements themselves. They could follow suit with 5G Ultra, or coin another term — but that really would confuse the market.

Elsewhere in Europe, Orange and Telefonica in Spain and Vodafone in Germany are using “5G+” to represent the new standalone technology. Telia in Finland is the only operator in the region to have launched it without a new brand; but this may still change as its initial offering is only for fixed wireless access.

I also wonder whether there’s a political angle to all of this. As part of its plans to merge with Three, Vodafone committed to bringing standalone 5G to 95% of the UK population by 2030. Maybe it’s hoping that talking up the benefits will convince the competition authorities of the virtues of a far wider deployment. It certainly feels like a lot of PR noise for something that currently benefits only a very small number of customers.

I’d be interested to hear what Ofcom thinks too. For some time, the UK regulator has been pushing for greater transparency, and it recently launched an investigation into the “unclear and inconsistent” use of the term “fibre” in broadband providers’ marketing.

One final thought — standalone 5G will probably have its greatest impact in the enterprise market, enabling technologies such as network slicing or supporting applications in areas like private mobile networks. It’s therefore interesting that — once again — the consumer market has formed the initial focus of marketing efforts. Given that the non-standalone version of 5G has proved something of a damp squib so far, I’ll be keeping a close watch on how customers perceive what many believe is the start of the real 5G journey.

Note: despite our efforts to try Vodafone’s 5G standalone service in London with a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, we’ve still not managed to get it working with our SIMs yet. Once we’ve tried it, we’ll try to provide an update on any performance improvements.