Vodafone Partners with Hatch ahead of 5G Launch

Mobile gaming is emerging as an early consumer 5G battleground

Today, Vodafone UK shared further details about the launch of its 5G network, scheduled for 3 July 2019.

The headline announcement was a partnership with Finnish company Hatch to offer cloud gaming to all of Vodafone’s pay-monthly mobile subscribers. It will give Vodafone customers unlimited access to more than 100 premium mobile games, including Angry Birds and Monument Valley. Gamers will be able stream directly to their smartphone without interruption from downloads, updates, ads or in-game purchases. Access will be free for three months and £6.99 a month after that.

This is an important tie-up for Vodafone; gaming is emerging as an early consumer 5G battleground, as lower latencies and higher throughput enable more attractive and immersive experiences. Although the Hatch offer isn’t exclusive to the operator’s 5G subscribers, I’d expect it to be prominent in Vodafone’s 5G marketing.

Hatch is becoming a popular partner for operators’ 5G launches and already has deals in place with SK Telecom and LG Uplus in South Korea and Sprint in the US. It also has a strategic agreement with NTT DoCoMo in Japan. In a similar move, yesterday EE announced a partnership with Niantic as part of its 5G roll-out (see EE Reveals Details of 5G Network Launch). I expect Three to also to push assertively into gaming later in the year.

Vodafone also confirmed its handset and service plan pricing. Significantly, and like rival operator EE as well as retailer Carphone Warehouse, it has elected not to offer Huawei smartphones for its 5G launch. The operator is pausing pre-orders for the 5G-ready Huawei Mate 20 X in the UK, a move that follows recent US restrictions placed on companies dealing with the Chinese phone-maker (see Instant Insight: Huawei Consumer Devices Uncertainty in Face of US Restrictions). However, it will still offer the Huawei 5G CPE Pro “home router”, which Vodafone is branding as the 5G Gigacube.

This currently leaves Vodafone with just two supporting 5G smartphones: the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and the Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G, which will be available exclusively from Vodafone. The operator opened pre-orders for both phones earlier today.

The Xiaomi device was unveiled at MWC Barcelona 2019, where its super-low €599 price tag grabbed many headlines. Vodafone will position it as the best-value 5G-ready handset on the market. However, I’m surprised by its introductory pricing of £50 per month with 5GB of data and £99 upfront. I had expected the price to be punchier; on a 5G network, customers could very quickly burn through 5GB of data. By contrast, EE’s entry tariff — for the Oppo Reno 5G — costs just £54 per month and includes 10GB.

At first glance, it’s difficult to see how these tariffs reflect Vodafone’s commitment to offer 5G at the same level as 4G. Given its decision not to charge a premium, we wonder why it didn’t simply choose to switch on 5G for all existing customers, similar to the approach Three took with 4G in 2013. This would have certainly helped it with its high-profile battle with EE to lead the 5G market in the UK.

5G is crucial to Vodafone regaining standing in its emotive home market after several years in the doldrums, and the operator has been busy stirring up plenty of publicity ahead of launch. It conducted the UK’s first holographic call using 5G (see TOBi or not TOBi), launched a major test bed in Birmingham including New Street station, and set up it 5G Blast Pod at Manchester Airport (see Vodafone Turns On 5G). In this context, and in light of EE’s impressive launch event yesterday, I can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed.

Still, although new 5G networks will be central to the fortunes of all UK providers over the next 10 years, it’s important to proceed cautiously. The mobile industry has had its fingers burned in the past by getting ahead of itself and setting unrealistic expectations. The initial launches by EE and Vodafone are just the first step on a very long journey.

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