2019 has been quite a year for the UK from a connectivity point of view. The country became one of the first nations in Europe to launch commercial 5G mobile network services last month, when EE switched on its 5G networks.
The UK has made similarly impressive strides on the fixed line side of things, seeing a seven-fold increase in FTTH penetration levels since this time last year. I mean, sure, seven times nothing is still not very much at all, but it’s a start!
To its credit, the government seems to have recognised the need to safeguard its digital economy (especially in a post-Brexit setting) and is playing a proactive role in cultivating investment in both the fixed line and mobile sectors.
With Connected Britain 2019 just around the corner, what better time than now to stop and take stock of the UK’s position in the global telecoms arena and ask ‘what’s next’?
The UK has established itself as an early adopter of 5G and is well positioned to continue to lead, particularly in Europe. EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three have all committed to launch 5G mobile services in 2019, although so far, EE is the only one to have actually launched.
“Launching 5G is going to provide a [download speed] uplift of around 150Mbps and often far more than that. It's going to be a premium experience, it will be like having a lane to yourself on the motorway. We are also very confident that in 2019 there will be customers on EE who break the gigabit barrier on a smartphone,” said EE’s CEO, Marc Allera, upon his company’s 5G launch on the 30th May.
Three UK made the headlines this week when it announced that its 5G network would cover 25 towns and cities by the end of 2019, the most of any of the operators. In addition to this, Three claims that its large spectrum holding (including a contiguous block of 100MHz of spectrum) will allow it to offer the fastest and most reliable coverage in the land.
“We have worked hard over a long period of time to be able to offer the best end to end 5G experience. 5G is a game changer for Three, and of course I am excited that we will be the only operator in the UK who can offer true 5G,” said Three’s CEO, Dave Dyson.
So, if EE was the first, and Three (by their own assertion!) will be the fastest, what of the UK’s other two MNOs? Vodafone may well lay claim to be the one that is most keenly focussed on providing converged services. This week it confirmed that it will be shutting off its 3G network by 2022, refarming spectrum for 5G in the process. Vodafone’s fibre to the home (FTTH) fixed line partnership continues to go from strength-to-strength and looks set to deliver its pledge of 1 million FTTH connections by 2021. By that time, Vodafone will have ploughed huge amounts of cash into its mobile 5G networks and will be perfectly poised to reap the benefits of its strength in both the fixed line and mobile sectors.
“We started our 5G journey more than three years ago. We led the way in setting 5G standards to ensure phones and networks work well together. We upgraded our masts to be able to take 5G without disruption. And we were the first UK company to test 5G over our all-fibre core fixed and mobile network," Vodafone UK CEO, Nick Jeffery, told Total Telecom last month.
That leaves O2, who for my money have been the least vocal about 5G of the big four MNOs. Last year I remember reporting on Telefonica’s CTO claiming that any 5G released before 2020 (i.e. non-stand alone 5G) would not be worth the effort. In the face of the enthusiasm of its rivals, Telefonica has been forced to revise that opinion in the UK, and O2 has committed to launch 5G in 4 cities across the UK in the Summer of 2019. O2 has signed a network sharing agreement with Vodafone to speed up the rollout of 5G services and lessen the cost for both operators.
“O2’s 5G network will arrive this year and we want the next-generation of mobile services to launch with a bang. 5G will benefit customers from launch, with better speeds and improved customer experience,” said Mark Evans, CEO, Telefónica UK.
At Connected Britain this year, we’ll hear from the senior representatives from all of the UK’s big four mobile network operators, with key note addresses kicking off day one and day two. BT’s chief architect, Neil McRae; Vodafone’s chief technology officer, Scott Petty, O2’s chief operating officer, Derek McManus; and Three UK’s CEO, Dave Dyson, will all be sharing their plans for 5G in the UK, as all four operators look to kick on with their 5G rollouts this year.
Fixed line fibre
This year the UK grabbed a seat at the FTTH top table, when it made it onto the FTTH Council Europe’s list of countries who had achieved at least 1 per cent FTTH penetration. The UK’s telecoms regulator, Ofcom, now claims that that figure has risen to 7 per cent in just 9 months – an impressive feat.
In truth, fibre is at the very heart of the UK’s connectivity aspirations, whether that’s on the fixed line or mobile network side of things. Connected Britain will put fibre build out at the centre of the agenda this year, with keynote addresses from the CEO’s of Openreach, CityFibre, TalkTalk and Hyperoptic.
Openreach has recently upped its aspirational target from 10 million FTTH connections by 2025 to 15 million – always assuming that the economic conditions are right. Private equity and investment funds seem desperate to throw money at fire infrastructure, with CityFibre, Hyperoptic and GigaClear all attracting investment in excess of £100m each, since last year’s edition of Connected Britain.
With plenty of private money sloshing around, the UK government also needs to step up to the plate, according to VXFiber’s chairman, Mikael Sandberg.
“Any progress in the expansion of full fibre networks across the UK should be applauded. However, the market is currently 93% slow copper putting the UK in 27th place out of 54 countries worldwide, and second from bottom in Europe.
“In today’s increasingly digital world, when businesses, the public and the government all rely on high-speed connectivity more than ever, the UK simply needs more fibre in the ground. With the growth of smart cities, cloud services and the IoT, the UK risks being even further left behind if it doesn’t invest in full fibre connectivity now. On a positive note, in the face of current and future market needs, with increasing trends fuelling that need, it seems that substantial momentum is finally picking up in the UK,” he told Total Telecom in an interview this week.
Despite its recent successes, the UK still has a long way to go before it can truly consider itself a connectivity powerhouse. Huge swathes of people in rural locations across the UK, still live in areas where they can not receive a mobile signal from any of the big four MNOs. It’s a maddening situation to find yourself in – trust me, until relatively recently I lived in such a place. To be within touching distance of the financial capital of Europe and have no mobile connectivity whatsoever and only the most basic of fixed line options from BT is completely infuriating. Worse, it can be utterly debilitating for local businesses. Earlier this year, Total Telecom launched its Bringing Britain Together campaign, during which we spoke to senior representatives from across the industry to find out why so many rural Britons were being left digitally disenfranchised.
Connected Britain picks up the mantle from the Bringing Britain Together campaign, shining a light on the challenges that Britain’s network operators face in bringing connectivity to hard to reach rural locations. Who should bear the cost for bringing connectivity to the remaining 5 per cent of the population? After all, is it fair to ask a private company to pick up the tab for delivering connectivity to economically unviable areas?
The Connected Society stream of Connected Britain will focus in on the issue and drill down into the potential challenges and solutions that the industry is facing. Representatives from CityFibre, Vodafone, BDUK, Community Fibre, Hyperoptic and a whole host of county council representatives will debate these issues in a number of focussed panel sessions across the agenda.
Connected Britain 2019 and beyond
Connected Britain 2019 is going to be an absolute monster of an event, with an agenda packed full of the industry’s most influential thought leaders and decision makers. It’s genuinely crazy to think how much the event has grown over the past 12 months. That is as much a reflection on the pace at which the UK’s telecoms sector is evolving as anything else. But don't take my word for it - here's what Cormac Whelan, Nokia's CEO for the UK and Ireland, had to say about the event, when i caught up with him earlier this week.
"With Brexit and the ongoing Huawei situation, there happens to be a lot of perfect storms going on [in the UK's connectivity sector] at the moment, but this just reflects the fact that Connected Britain is the perfect platform for us to be having those types of debates. When you look at the calibre of speakers they have got, from the industry, from technologists, from local government, it’s the number one forum in the UK for this industry. From that point of view, it’s fantastic for the industry and for the country," he said.
While there is much to celebrate in the UK’s connectivity space, there are also many challenges that lie ahead.
What predictions then for Connected Britain 2020? Will we see the first iterations of stand-alone 5G on show? Unlikely, but not impossible.
Could the UK’s FTTH penetration levels hit 20 per cent by 2020 (I have to admit that I like the symmetry of that aspiration)?
Will Britain achieve the 95 per cent geographical mobile network coverage that the government is so keen on?
I’ll stick my neck out and answer my own questions - no to stand-alone 5G in 2020 and no to hitting the 95 per cent geographical coverage target. However, I do think we will see FTTH penetration levels hit 20 per cent by June 2020. But who cares what I think? Why not come on down to the Business Design Centre in Angel on Tuesday and Wednesday to hear what the industry's most influential decision makers think of Britain's prospects for the year ahead.
Connected Britain will be held on the 18th and 19th of June at the Business Design Centre, in Angel, London. Click here to find out how you can attend the event and be among the thousands of attendees helping to shape Britain's connected future.