5G rollouts gather pace, despite obstacles and arguments over coverage

O2, BT and rivals are in a race to deploy 5G to as many locations as possible, despite various obstacles to the technology's rollout.

5G will happen without Huawei in the UK

Mobile network providers in the UK are moving ahead with the deployment of 5G and have announced a range of new locations across the country that can now benefit from next-generation connectivity, even if few of us can get out and use it.

Mobile operator O2 said that it has surpassed the target of reaching 150 locations across the country with 5G connectivity, with new networks opening, among other spots, in Bournemouth, Cheltenham, Doncaster and Southampton. O2 also announced that it has increased its 5G coverage footprint in larger cities including London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester. 

At the same time, rival network provider EE, which is owned by telecoms giant BT, has announced that it has switched on 5G services in 13 new towns in the UK, bringing the total number of locations covered by the company's network to 125 towns and cities.  

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In a new blog post that followed the announcement, BT's CEO of consumer brands Marc Allera explained that EE only announces that it has switched on a new site when various criteria have been met. Specifically, EE announces locations with a minimum population of 10,000, of which at least a third should be benefitting from 5G coverage; and once announced, work continues to grow the network in the given site. For example, coverage has more than doubled in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh since EE first launched 5G in those locations. 

Allera took a swipe at BT's rivals for claiming network achievements that are based on looser benchmarks. "We could loosen our criteria like some competitors," wrote the company's CEO. "To be honest, it's tempting, by doing so we would reveal 5G is actually in around 200 unique locations across the UK."  

According to Allera, another BT rival currently claims to have the highest number of 5G locations in the UK, even though, he said, test results from "independent analysts" show that coverage levels are lower than EE's in many sites. "The lack of consistency in how, where and when networks claim to have 5G is frustrating," concluded Allera. 

The race to cover as much of the UK as possible with 5G connectivity comes as experts cast doubts over the feasibility of the task at hand, given the proposed deadline. The government has announced the objective of achieving majority 5G coverage in the country by 2027, which was hailed as over-ambitious in a recent report from the digital, culture, media and sports (DCMS) committee.  

Much of the challenge, said the report, comes from a recent ban on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which was labelled a "high-risk" vendor based on security concerns put forward by the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC). Following the ban, UK communications providers were required to phase out Huawei kit from the country's 5G networks, to eventually strip out the Chinese company's equipment entirely from the UK's 5G infrastructure by 2027. 

This means that companies like BT have had to secure deals with alternative equipment providers, such as Nokia and Ericsson. Replacing Huawei infrastructure, however, is expected to cause as much as a three-year delay to the roll-out of 5G, and to come at an extra cost of £2 billion ($2.6 billion).  

BT has maintained that it will still be able to meet the 2027 deadline, but estimates suggest that rolling out Huawei-free 5G infrastructure will require an extra £500 million ($630 million) for the company's overall network. 

5G networks, but for who?

Both BT and O2 noted the imperative to deliver a reliable 5G network that is widely available to the entire UK population, especially while country-wide lockdowns stress the need for digital connectivity. 

Derek McManus, chief operating officer at O2, said: "Once again, we are facing tough lockdown restrictions and we are focused on ensuring we meet the demand for increased network capacity and reliability to keep everyone connected during this time." 

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Booming consumer demand has been matched by the multiplication of 5G-enabled handsets and mobile phone plans. O2 currently offers over 30 different 5G-enabled devices, while EE's pay-monthly smartphones provide 5G access as a standard. 

Apple's iPhone 12 launch with 5G last year has ensured that, along with Android, the two leading smartphone platforms are now 5G-equipped, and was forecast to trigger a consumer switch to next-generation connectivity thanks to the wider availability of compatible hardware. 

In the UK, however, a number of households are still waiting on previous generations of networks. The DCMS committee's report noted that 9% of the country is effectively still a geographic "not-spot", with no 4G service available from any mobile operator. In Scotland, the proportion of not-spots jumps to 20%. For those regions, it is likely that the promise of 5G connectivity still sounds like a distant prospect.