Vodafone Turns On 5G

UK Operator Gives Consumers a Taste of 5G Networks

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited by the good folks at Vodafone UK to witness the launch of its first 5G “blast pod” in Manchester Airport. It’s a simple enough idea: plonk a big plastic structure in the middle of a departure lounge and invite people to try out Vodafone’s 5G network by connecting their phone using a 5G-enabled Wi-Fi hot spot.

Rather cleverly, given the location, Vodafone also offered users a one-time NowTV voucher to download content for their journey onto their devices through a specially installed 5G router.

The showcase offered future 5G customers the chance to experience mobile download speeds of over 100 Mbps, which Vodafone claims are “four times the speed of its 4G service”, painting a bright picture of this new technology and raising the profile of what 5G can deliver.

I found the 5G service to be reasonably stable and peaked over 100 Mbps when I used it a couple of times. It was an impressive performance considering the technical challenges that come with an environment that’s hard to cover. Airport restrictions meant that the test base station wasn’t ideally placed.

Vodafone’s blast pod seemed to draw a good deal of attention, and a few travellers I spoke with already seemed to understand that 5G was “better than 4G” before trying out the service.

This was all the more interesting for a couple of reasons. According to our survey into mobile buying behaviour, 70 percent of UK consumers are aware of 5G technology and most understand it’s an improvement on what they have now. It’s a reflection of the hype for these next-generation networks.

It also highlights the challenges of positioning 5G to consumers. If operators choose to focus solely on speed as the most important aspect of the networks, they’ll be playing a dangerous game. These claims can easily be beaten by rivals eager to prove their own credentials in a crucial new technology with increasingly dizzying speeds. In reality, 5G has much more to offer, namely capacity and very low latency, but these benefits are tough to communicate easily.

More importantly, speed is largely meaningless to consumers who have access to a reliable 4G network. Slow connectivity is rarely a source of frustration for these customers, in fact, there are far more complaints about network coverage.

Although the ability to deliver fast downloads of high-quality content is a good incentive and demonstration of the benefit of high-speed mobile broadband, regular travellers are often as technically savvy as many millennials. They will probably have downloaded shows from platforms like BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Sky before leaving home, using a high-quality fibre broadband connection and probably on a subscription that gives them decent speeds and unlimited downloads.

Also, most consumers aren’t yet aware how they will use the faster speeds of 5G and until they do, they’re unlikely to pay for something that has no value to them. I was concerned that one or two of the people that took part in Vodafone’s trial may have left thinking that 5G is primarily just a new type of home broadband service, when that isn’t really the point.

This is at the heart of the problem for all operators around the world marketing their 5G offerings to consumers: how do you make a consumer care about 5G enough to be willing to pay more for it when they don’t know the value of the service?

Operators will need to find that “wow” moment that can only happen on 5G. We’ll be keeping a watchful eye on developments in this area. For now, hats off to the Vodafone team, especially its network engineers, for coming up with a showcase that highlighted the potential 5G stands to offer consumers.