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EE: Leaders of the pack…well sort of.

EE’s 2.8GBps download speed and sub 5ms latency have been greatly hyped this month as a triumphant step towards delivering 5G to UK customers. To put that in context 4G delivers a download speed of around 14MBps with a latency of 60ms! Undoubtedly these results are exciting but only really in the context of the European market. 

Globally other players have also made impressive strides. For example in Asia Huawei and NTT DoCoMo have repeatedly conducted similar tests dating back to 2015 with even more impressive results. This month they demonstrated the first 5G Customer premies enterprise (CPE) application with a successful live-demo of a holographic video call over a 5G end-to-end network.  This groundbreaking CPE, is the industry’s smallest 5G mmWave CPE product with an indoor unit that is only about 3 Litres in size, suitable for indoor settings. This exciting development lends huge credence to the idea that 5G could be commercially available by 2020.

In the UK EE broadcast their 5G test through a massive 64 x 64 MIMO antenna unit (multi-input multi-output unit). This is much larger than the typical 2x2, 4x4 or 8x8 MIMO systems used by 4G networks. Perhaps equally as noteworthy then as the exciting (and greatly hyped!) 5G download speeds, is the demonstration of EE’s massive MIMO capabilities, which may have implications for the expansion of 4G long before 5G is market ready. In this context at least in the British market EE’s recent demonstration has certainly been making waves. 


With the Chancellor Philip Hammond announcing an investment of half a billion pounds into technological initiatives including AI, Full fibre broadband, and a £740m investment into 5G , the pertinent question is: Why is 5G so important? Over the last decade the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) has rapidly become a buzzword synonymous with technical innovation, repeatedly promised to revolutionise the way we live, work and play. In the last few years we have seen some steps towards this from smart plugs and lights, to Amazon’s revolutionary AI assistant Alexa which offers integration with Ford cars, smartphones and even refrigerators. However for most of us the IoT has yet to really change the way we live. Driverless cars for example, still seem like a distant novelty to many - but 5G could rapidly change this. 5G offers the potential for network slicing - essentially dividing the network into various streams to serve specific needs. For example in the case of driverless cars low latency is very important but the volume of data transmitting is relatively low. However when downloading a movie, large quantities of data are being downloaded but latency becomes less important. The other key factor to note about a 5G network is that it offers far greater bandwidth capabilities, meaning more devices can be connected at the same time without slowing it down. The Government’s bold financial backing of the 5G network and the technologies that would rely on it, show a huge vote of confidence that 5G could be an instrumental part of the UK’s economic future. If the 2020 deadline is met it could just a matter of  time before not only driverless cars but truly ‘smart homes’, connected buildings and even smart cities become a reality!


While the idea of the UK having a significant part in this industry is incredibly exciting, there is still a long way to go. This week many have been asking what EE’s tests really mean and the likelihood of a 2020 commercial launch date. The first thing to note is that these tests were conducted by one operator, using their own infrastructure and may not be an indicator of how these technologies would perform in a multivendor environment. An end-to-end 5G test utilising multiple vendor’s cores and RANs (Radio Access Network) may be a better indicator of what 5G could really mean for the consumer.  Another setback for 5G has been the delays in Ofcom’s spectrum auction which was initially expected to take place this year and would have been a significant step towards carving out the  parameters of the UK’s 5G market. This auction has now been delayed due to high profile on-going disputes with both Three and EE. Ofcom have stated they expect a resolution to these spectrum cap disputes (speculated to be early in 2018), not to prohibit a 2020 release date. 

Pending the Ofcom auction, eyes will turn to 3PP, the international association of Telecoms groups, to announce their specifications for true 5G. At the moment an interim standard called ‘non-stand alone 5G’ has been agreed. More concrete specifications would further flesh out what a 5G roll out could actually look like for UK operators. Undoubtedly there are still several hurdles before we can really gage what 5G could offer consumers in the real world. However it is clear that the virtual landscape is changing rapidly and while the UK market is not at the front of the pack, we aren’t that far behind either. Much has been said this week about how EE’s test still reflects that the UK is falling behind Asia. If you couple this test though, with the financial backing shown by the government into developing 5G, it seems clear that the UK is set on going after a significant piece of the 5G pie. The impact of these developments could change, not just how we consume data on mobile devices but it could have a significant impact both on British life and the future of British industry.

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