More than 80 of the UK’s most prominent enterprises, including accountancy firms, banks, broadcasters and manufacturers, have visited EE’s 5G mobile network trial site at Canary Wharf to take part in demonstration sessions and share their thoughts on how 5G will play into their digital strategies. Some of the lessons learned by the operator have been described as “eye-opening”.
Speaking at a seminar outlining EE’s – and the BT Group’s – overarching 5G strategy, Gerry McQuade, CEO of BT Enterprise, said demand from business customers for 5G was reaching fever pitch.
“The Canary Wharf trial that we’ve been running, as well as the East London trial, has been very significant for us and the demand from our customers has been phenomenal,” said McQuade. “The customers have not just been coming to see what 5G looks like as a technology – they’ve been coming to us with ideas about how they want to utilise that technology.
“One of the things they have been very keen to talk about is how they bring products and services on top of this, and for them you could see that 5G and IoT [the internet of things] go hand-in-hand. We see the evolution of this as about working with customers to get to the use cases.”
McQuade said EE’s enterprise customers would receive access to 5G at the same time as the consumer launch in 2019.
However, recognising that the move to 5G is very much an evolutionary journey that builds on existing 4G networks, rather than launching a brand new network, EE’s initial focus will be on improving network speed and capacity, rather than some of the more advanced use cases speculated upon to date – such as autonomous vehicles.
“One of the key tenets of how we will look to approach this is actually to work with customers to identify how they want to use 5G in their businesses to aid their transformation plans,” said McQuade.
“We will start from a position where seamless converged connectivity will be there from day one for us. As the technology evolves, we will begin to see security come into play, but also dedicated network services for some of the larger customers.”
Although EE has yet to announce any specific enterprise products or services for 5G, McQuade said it was easy to see how the operator would evolve its enterprise offering in the near term. He pointed to its existing 4G Assure product and its Ethernet Mobile Connect product as examples of how its 5G offering will grow.
“Both those products are about allowing immediate connectivity for business,” he said. “But also, just as important for businesses is resilience and while 4G gives very strong resilience – especially in our Ethernet-based products – you can see where 5G plays a much more significant role in terms of resilience for customers if they fail to receive a broadband service.”
Converged networks for all
Beyond the enterprise, EE CEO Marc Allera gave a fresh insight into the business’ wider 5G strategy, particularly as it relates to consumers.
“Network convergence is at the core of our strategy,” he said. “Our vision is that we can connect our customers 100% of the time to a network that intelligently links 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi and broadband, so our customers don’t need to worry about technology. We do the worrying about what technology they’re using and all they need to do is get connected to the things they enjoy the most.
“5G is built on a 4G foundation and we’ve got the strongest foundation there is in the 4G network that we’ve built, and we’re upgrading our 4G network and adding more capacity and increasing coverage as well. 4G investment hasn’t stopped.
“We’re launching 5G with multiple smartphones and a 5G home router and we’re rolling out 5G to 16 cities in 2019. We’ll be doing that where our customers need it most.”
The first six cities to receive EE’s 5G service will be Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, London and Manchester, with Bristol, Coventry, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield to follow.
Initially, EE will upgrade just 7% of its cellular sites – about 1,500 in all – that carry 25% of its network load. This will centre on the very busiest public areas of the UK’s largest cities, including transport hubs such as London’s Waterloo Station, where EE claims one of its 4G masts already carries 100TB of data every day.
The upgrade will be backed by BT’s technology team, which is currently virtualising elements of its core 21CN backbone network, building a next-generation 5G core with virtualised network functions on a cloud-native infrastructure, which it says will create the basis for a smart and fully converged, agile network.
The operator plans to announce the first smartphone partners for its 5G service in the next few weeks, and Allera added that, as with 4G, there is likely to be a price premium placed on 5G.
The fact that 5G will be more expensive at launch, and that not every supplier will have a portfolio of compatible smartphones, suggests that mass adoption of 5G among UK consumers will not take place for another one to two years. But Allera said that, as with 4G, as coverage improves, device portfolios evolve and prices start to drop, and there is an expectation that take-up will grow exponentially beyond 2021.
“This is all about using new technology to get to a place where our customers are always able to be connected and don’t need to think about how,” he said. “That’s a really exciting vision that we believe will change the landscape of the UK.”