O2 Debuts 5G in the UK

Operator teams up with MelodyVR and Oculus for launch

O2’s launch of its 5G network this morning means that all four UK operators now offer a commercial 5G service. This is a feat unprecedented in Europe and possibly matched only by the US and South Korea. It’s also a far cry from the laggard status the UK endured in 4G, when more than 50 other countries launched networks first.

O2 may be the last UK operator to launch 5G services, but I doubt this will matter much to its customers. The technology is right at the beginning of a marathon 5G journey, and new applications and services demanding the technology’s full capabilities have yet to really emerge. O2 was never going to be get sucked into the race to be first that seemed to preoccupy EE and Vodafone earlier in the year.

This pragmatic approach is hard to argue against. CCS Insight’s latest research reveals that seven in 10 mobile phone users in the UK prefer to wait until a mobile technology like 5G is proven before committing to it (see Survey Reveals Early Consumer Appetite for 5G). This will give O2 time to expand its network beyond its initial six launch towns and cities. It plans to accelerate roll-out over the coming months, reaching 20 towns and cities by the end of 2019 and 50 by mid-2020. Like the approach taken by other UK operators, coverage is initially focused on areas of greatest demand, including sports stadiums and shopping centres.

The most interesting aspect of O2’s launch is a partnership with MelodyVR to offer immersive experiences to music fans. Available on airtime plans starting at £39 a month, customers receive a year’s subscription to MelodyVR and an Oculus Go virtual reality headset.

The move plays to O2’s strong heritage in music. This includes sponsorship of The O2 venue in London and about 20 Academy venues throughout the UK as well as offers on tickets through its successful Priority app.

Music and virtual reality are a strong mix and it was great to get the opportunity to put the MelodyVR service through its paces with O2 yesterday. I can certainly vouch that the experience is the next best thing to going to a gig, allowing the user to get up close to the action and view a performance from multiple angles. Virtual reality is ideal for fans unable to attend in person, because of cost, distance, health or other reasons.

Although the deal with MelodyVR brings some differentiation to the UK 5G market, I hope it’s just the beginning. To acquire new customers and drive higher average spending, operators may need to offer a wide range of immersive experiences and inclusive content. It’s a strategy that is gaining good traction in South Korea, where more than 3.5 million customers have already signed up to 5G services.

O2’s consumer 5G launch held few other surprises. Its successful Custom plans form a leading part and the decision not to charge a price premium matches that of rivals Vodafone and Three. O2 had already announced that unlimited data would be included in the 5G offering; this is available at £40 per month on its Custom plans, excluding monthly handset costs.

O2’s CEO, Mark Evans, has always maintained that 5G’s greatest impact will eventually come in the business sector, and as a part of this the operator has already established several partnerships. They include deals with Samsung for a connected ambulance, ITN Productions for a 5G-powered live TV advert and Japanese tool-maker Yamazaki Mazak for a smart factory. A range of business tariffs are available now to support a greater push into the enterprise sector, as outlined by the company during a recent event for analysts (see O2 Sets Out Its Enterprise Stall).

After months of build-up, it’s full steam ahead for 5G in the UK. The battle for customers can finally begin.