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O2 UK details 2019 5G launch

O2

Telefonica’s UK business O2 has confirmed it will launch 5G in 2019, though there will be much more of a business twist to the new connected euphoria.

Mixed in with the management team reporting financial results for the last twelve months, the team announced the network upgrade, which will be fuelled by a £1 billion CAPEX investment over 2019. What is worth noting is the O2 management is pitching 5G with more of a business facade than competitors are offering.

Although specific dates have not been revealed, the network will first launch in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh and London, while the rollout will continue throughout the rest of the UK through 2020, as compatible smartphones become more readily available.

“Mobile is one of the most powerful opportunities for growth in the economy and 5G is just the next step,” said COO Derek McManus. “We’re building a 5G economy is coalition with British business.”

What is not entirely clear is how much of this £1 billion investment will be directed towards 5G and what will be left over for the 4G network. O2 has been investing healthily in its network over the last couple of months, CAPEX investments in 2018 accounted for 12.9% of total revenues, and CEO Mark Evans expects this to continue.

According to Evans, 5G will not be forced on consumers once launched, but there will naturally be early adopters queuing up. Selling 5G to the consumer is going to be a tricky task for many telcos, 4G is arguably fast enough for all available applications and services, and to ensure O2 is generating ROI, the enterprise world is going to be a focus for the team.

This is not necessarily out of character for the telco either. Over the last couple of months, O2 has been targeting enterprise for growth, perhaps realising fortunes are not going to be realised in the consumer segment. As the market leader, O2 now has 32.6 million connections on its network (including MVNOs) and the expense of artificially attempting to force future growth might exceed the benefit. Growing in the enterprise market, while maintaining a leadership position in the consumer world, is certainly a sensible strategy.

“The company is taking a cautious wait and see approach to 5G,” said independent analyst Paolo Pescatore. “However, it can’t afford to be left behind. It is apparent that initial consumer appetite for 5G will be limited. A greater focus on enterprises is a sensible approach.”

Over the last couple of months, O2 has been running its FTSE 100 5G testbed to identify the usecases which mean the most to British business. Although McManus was not forthcoming on specific partners and customers, he did suggest there was strong progress being made in the agriculture, retail, transport and industrial segments. O2 will certainly not turn away any consumers who want to upgrade to 5G, but there does seem to be much more of a business twist to the super-charged network plans than we’re seeing at other UK telcos.

That said, while there is certainly a stronger focus on business, fixed wireless access seemingly has not been ruled out as a 5G usecase, potentially opening the door for a convergence offering. Evans pointed out that there would certainly be customers who would use the 5G connectivity for FWA but stopped short of completely ruling out this type of service from O2.

According to both Evans and McManus, FWA can make sense in some circumstances, take rural locations as an example, but long-term there are better options. With the country being fibred up, FWA as 5G validation is weak.

Moving over to the financial results, there are certainly some healthy numbers here. Total revenues for the last twelve months went just past £6 billion, a 5.4% year-on-year increase, while operating income was £1.6 billion, a 11.8% boost in comparison to 2017. O2’s subscription base grew to 25 million, with the total of 32.6 million including MVNOs such as Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and Lycamobile, as well as its own sub-brand Giffgaff.

CFO Patricia Cobian pointed towards increased data consumption and the introduction of three new offers as fuel for the positive results. In Q1, O2 updated its roaming plans to include the US and Australia (amongst other countries), while in Q2 the team launched a family plan and in Q3 Custom Plan debuted, allowing customers to decide how they pay for subsidized devices. With net additions standing at 282,000 across 2018 and churn below 1%, the offers certainly seem to be having a positive impact.

The Priority initiative has once again proved successful for the business. Some might feel this is a card which is underplayed by the O2 team, but customers certainly enjoy it. Over 8 million Priority offers accepted across the year, 42 million entries made to prize draws and £26.7 million saved in offers and freebies.

In terms of value adds, O2 is doing a great job in rewarding customers but limiting its own exposure. For example, the Telefonica parent group has relationships in place all around the world to fuel the roaming offer, the custom plans make few changes to revenues and the Priority initiative is more about connecting two parties, rather than a big financial outlay. BT has tried to add value by spending billions on TV content, but O2 is using current assets in an intelligent way to create value for customers and partners.

O2 isn’t changing the world with these results, but the UK is a relatively sedate telco market. That said, the telco is in a very healthy position moving forward. With a sensible touch crafting a business visage to 5G, a loyal customer base and big investment plans, O2 will not be easily giving up its leadership position.

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