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EE breaks out the tractor for 2019 5G launch

Taking photo of tractor at work on a field with mobile phone

EE has confirmed it will re-farm 3G mobile services in 2100 MHz spectrum band to boost 4G experience and lay the foundations to hit the 5G on-switch next year.

While it has generally been accepted the European telcos are lagging behind North America and Asia in the 5G race, EE is attempting to show you cannot bundle the entire block under the banner of boresome. In targeting 2019, EE joins the likes of Telia leaving the vast majority of European competitors in the trailing peloton.

“Our customers want a fast and reliable 4G connection, and that’s what we’re working to give them,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer business.

“We are using the investment we made in 3G spectrum nearly 15 years ago to give customers today a great experience with the latest smartphones on 4G, and build our foundation for 5G in 2019. We’re constantly evolving, and the customer experience of 5G will be dictated by the quality of the 4G network underneath.”

Looking at the 4G side of things first, over the next six months 500 towers will be switched over from 3G to 4G. The announcement keeps the telco on track to power down 3G by 2022, an objective which was seemingly accidentally announced during 5G world at the Excel this June by CTIO Howard Watson. The sites which are being converted have been identified as the ‘hotspots’ across the UK, those areas where there is the greatest demand for mobile connectivity.

Some of EE’s more advanced sites already support carrier aggregation technology, allowing EE to combine spectrum from multiple spectrum bands to improve customer experience, though the re-farmed 3G spectrum to support five carrier aggregation (5CA). Only newer smartphones will be able to experience this 5CA bonanza, but it will certainly continue to improve the 4G experience.

Moving onto the 5G side of things, the commitment is quite vague in that it is nothing more than 2019, though EE is certainly one of the exceptions to the European sluggish 5G trend. Finnish telco Telia is another which announced last week it would launch commercial 5G services at the beginning of 2019, though considering the technology expertise Finland has in Nokia, this announcement is perhaps less surprising.

For EE, the plan is to make use of the upgraded sites with the maximum amount of 4G spectrum, with 5G sitting on top. Considering 5G is a technology which will aid the telcos in dealing with the extraordinary demand which is developing in some city centres, this makes sense.

What is worth noting is these are only pockets of the country; the 5G dream will not be experienced by the majority, though it is another tool for the marketing department to preach about. Three has been connecting more of its network to BT exchanges ahead of 5G, though this is ahead of a 2020 launch. Vodafone won plenty of spectrum at the latest auction, though it is also targeting 2020. O2 has questioned whether any launches before 3GPP’s Release 16, due in December 2019 and would set the scene for standalone architecture, is actually 5G in any case.

Getting the opportunity to boast about 5G services, despite them being incredibly limited, 12 months before its three competitors is a significant boost for EE. We expect it will dominate advertising campaigns, conference speeches and PR stunts for the next couple of years. It’s a message the marketing team will not get bored of until another telco can say the same.

A final question worth asking is whether this is enough to recapture its position at the top of the market share rankings, a spot which has been held by O2 for the last couple of quarters. All will depend on how much of a premium EE decides to charge customers for 5G, and we suspect it will take advantage of the situation. With a monopoly on 5G and lost fortunes to recover, we suspect EE will put the really pointy shoe on.

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