5G Coverage Update – Vodafone

Vodafone won big at the recent 5G spectrum auction and is already carrying out various 5G trials.

Vodafone plans to launch 5G in 2019 but may take its time complete a full UK rollout over a number of years unless it needs to react to market pressures and accelerate deployments to increase market share. (Vodafone announced an 800Million Euro revenue fall in their latest Q3 results…)

Network and launch plans

Vodafone has 99% UK population coverage with 4G, which helps with 5G as well, because initially networks will likely use a mix of 5G and 4G technology.

Vodafone has shown a strong commitment to upgrading and expanding its network. Examples are already emerging for 5G including building 4G antennae into manhole covers and phone boxes.

Vodafone also has a 4G LTE Advanced network in some locations, which could be used as a bridge between standard 4G and 5G.

O2 & Vodafone announced in January 2019 a plan to share 5G infrastructure.

Spectrum holdings

Vodafone came out of Ofcom’s recent 5G spectrum auction with 50MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, which it paid £378,240,000 for and specifically acquired the 3410MHz – 3460MHz part of the band.

That’s more than any other rival acquired, as EE and O2 each got 40MHz while Three won just 20MHz. That could put Vodafone in a strong early 5G position, as 3.4GHz spectrum should be ideal for 5G.

Vodafone also has 176MHz of immediately useable spectrum in other bands. This is less suited to 5G and Vodafone has less of it than EE, but it still has a reasonable amount.

Vodafone should be able to acquire more spectrum, as Ofcom is set to auction off some in the 3.6GHz – 3.8GHz range and the 700MHz band at some point.

Launch plans

Vodafone plans to start offering 5G services in 2019, but possibly only in Cornwall and the Lake District, which would mean an initial focus on rural rather than urban locations. The network plans to have 1,000 5G sites active by 2020.

Vodafone previously said it expected to launch 5G in early 2020. So they may already be working hard to accelerate plans for 2019 and not lose ground to rivals.

Vodafone has additionally said that it sees its 5G roll out as following a similar timeline to 4G, which is to say it will be gradual, with 50% of UK devices getting a 5G connection by the mid-2020’s.

Other than the locations above, London is sure to be a launch city, as it’s the biggest UK city and as that’s where Vodafone’s 4G network started.

Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester may also be first in line, given that the network has announced trials there.

Current trial and development activities

5G trials

Vodafone has launched what it calls the UK’s first full 5G trial. A 5G site in Salford, Greater Manchester, which it says is the first in the UK to carry full 5G over a commercial network.

This trial uses 3.4GHz spectrum and is the first of many, with the network also planning to soon launch full 5G trials in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. With further trials planned in the Scottish Highlands, Cornwall, the Lake District and other locations.

Before all of this, Vodafone carried out the UK’s first trial of 3.4GHz spectrum for 5G use. The network also tested Massive MIMO in the process.

Vodafone is additionally set to carry out 5G New Radio field trial collaborations with Nokia and Qualcomm, and it has completed the UK’s first live holographic call over 5G.

Vodafone has also become the first mobile operator to complete a standalone pre-standard 5G test, and along with other companies has approved the first 5G standard.

These trials and Vodafone’s 5G plans in general are part of a ‘Gigabit UK’ plan the network has, which would see customers able to access speeds of 1Gbps or more wherever they are, using a combination of 5G and fast fixed broadband.

Other development activities

Vodafone seems primarily focused on speed and Internet of Things (IoT) applications with 5G, but it’s starting with the basics, and has partnered with Huawei (Paused 25 January 2019), Nokia, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Intel to both research 5G and prepare its network for the technology transition. Its not known at this stage if pausing the use of Huawei will impact the time to market.

When it comes to the Internet of Things, Vodafone isn’t even waiting for 5G to expand its capabilities, as it plans to add Narrowband-IoT support to its existing network to bring 5G-like benefits ahead of time, by improving indoor coverage and supporting a high number of low-power devices within close proximity. It’s already carried out a Narrowband-IoT test on a live commercial network.

In summary – Initially expected a launch in 2020 but trying to pull the date forward and will then work on a gradual roll out and we expect them to react to demand.

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