EE Turns on 5G in the UK

First commercial network goes live in six cities

Today EE switched on the UK’s first commercial 5G network. EE joins a growing number of operators around the world lighting up their 5G services, including carriers in the US, South Korea, Switzerland and the Middle East (see Quarterly Market Analysis: 5G Networks, 1Q19).

5G networks have dawned earlier than initially expected. Participants including telecom standards bodies, infrastructure companies like Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia, and leading chipset provider Qualcomm have all accelerated efforts to get the technology ready for prime time. The fact that EE’s service is now up and running and working reliably is testament to the combined efforts of everyone involved — not least the engineers performing the intensive testing and tweaking that has been going on behind the scenes for months, something that is all too easy to overlook.

5G has been a hot topic in the analyst community for several years and there’s been one consistent theme — why do we need it? Commentators have fixated on the speeds that 5G can offer and regularly posed another question: what would you do with the additional bandwidth?

As someone who has lived through the launch of four generations of mobile technology, I was always confident that the old mantra of “build it and they will come” would prevail. Every time network operators have provided more bandwidth people have quickly found ways to take advantage of it, and I believe it’ll be the same for 5G.

Over the last few days I’ve been trialling EE’s 5G network, and although it’s only available in a few limited areas, my experiences have been very positive. I’ve recorded speeds consistently between 200 Mbps and 400 Mbps. Getting that ultrareliable, high-quality service is what consumers really want. As the CEO of BT Consumer, Marc Allera, said at the launch event last week, gigabit speeds may make headlines, but they aren’t the whole story (see Instant Insight: EE to Launch UK’s First 5G Network).

Yesterday I went on a “5G tour” around London, visiting EE’s various 5G sites around the capital.

I’ve been testing primarily with OnePlus devices — the OnePlus 6T (McLaren Edition) 4G smartphone and the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G. Both devices are powered by Qualcomm’s processors, although the 7 Pro 5G sports a Snapdragon 855, Qualcomm’s first processor on its new 7 nm FinFET process.

Combined with the Snapdragon X50 modem, the improved silicon produces blistering performance, as this onlooker found during my test in central London.

In an age of content consumption, 5G definitely delivers — particularly for downloads and streaming. My experiences in Cardiff provide good demonstrations of this. Here, I’m downloading an album on Spotify. It’s immediately clear that 5G is significantly faster than 4G.

An even better illustration is downloading video. In this example, I compare the two phones downloading a film from Amazon Prime Video in the highest possible quality, which meant a 2GB file. Once again, 5G provided outstanding results and the file could be downloaded in about a minute.

However, the obsession with speed is a dangerous one — 5G delivers a trio of capabilities that will all benefit consumers and speed’s only one of them.

Capacity is another essential characteristic, particularly in a densely populated country like the UK. In most major cities mobile networks are struggling to keep up with demand. The two demonstrations in Cardiff were conducted between 5 PM and 6 PM as people left work to head home — a time when networks are typically very congested. It’s little surprise that 4G was struggling, and the contrast between the two network technologies was palpable.

The third area is latency — the delay in the transmission of packets of data around the network. The inherently lower latency of 5G networks could create an early application of the technology in multiplayer gaming, where split-second decisions make huge differences to performance. Last week, EE also confirmed that it’s the telecom launch partner for Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, an augmented reality game co-developed by Niantic, the company behind Pokemon Go.

Many commentators argue that Europe is trailing in 5G, and in some respects this is true. But it’s important to recognise that fledgling debuts in the region, including EE’s today, arrive ahead of launches in China and Japan and are not much behind those in South Korea. It’s full speed ahead in the UK from now on.