BT plans to roll out EE 5G coverage to 90% of the UK’s geographical area by 2028, with migration to a new cloud-based core network facilitating the launch of Standalone 5G (SA 5G) services by 2023.
The company says it is offering the most “complete network vision” the country has ever seen, combining 5G, fibre and Wi-Fi to deliver unprecedented convergence that will deliver business opportunities for both itself and its customers.
“We’re building and bonding two next generation networks simultaneously to create a single smart infrastructure available in every part of the UK,” said Marc Allera, BT Consumer CEO, adding that it would be able to offer a fully converged service by the middle of the decade.
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EE 5G coverage
“This [network rollout] will support the UK’s economic recovery and support business opportunities and the delivery of 5G is vital to supporting the data demands of our customers.”
“By 2028, EE’s macro 5G network will cover 90% of the UK landmass and anything beyond that will be supported by ‘requestable’ solutions.”
This rollout will be supported by EE’s commitments to the Shared Rural Network (SRN), its investments in the Emergency Services Network (ESN), and a promise to improve coverage in key locations like event spaces, train stations and conference centres.
These efforts will include the use of neutral host technology that provides connectivity from multiple operators through the same infrastructure and through low-band spectrum that has greater range and indoor penetration qualities. EE has confirmed that Redditch, Morecambe and Cramlington will be the first towns in the UK to benefit from recently-acquired 700MHz bandwidth.
“Technological innovations will take us even further,” added Allera. “We are pushing the limits of our network, and this will go beyond relying on mast infrastructure. We will need to extend service beyond macro network.”
He said that EE would be using roving masts and enhanced rapid response units to provide temporary coverage for major events and emergencies, but it was also looking at high altitude platform stations (HAPS), drones and satellites. It is thought that these technologies will power the ‘requestable’ coverage.
A ‘memorandum of understanding (MoU)’ has been agreed with British-based Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite firm OneWeb, but EE has not ruled out working with other providers.
5G core launch
These radio network efforts will be underpinned by the launch of a new converged core network that will allow BT to provide “seamlessly connectivity”. To date, EE’s 5G services have been used 5G New Radio (5G NR) but have relied on the same 4G core. In order to deliver the capacity, agility, and ultra-low latency that will be required to fulfil the full potential of 5G, the shift to a software-based cloud core network is necessary.
“Convergence is more than just physical ducts and towers,” said BT CTIO Howard Watson. “We need a single smart network that marries 4GH, 5G fibre and converged IP core.”
The new core will go live in 2022, based on BT’s distributed cloud core infrastructure, and migration will be complete by 2023. BT says this will allow instant service rollout and customer upgrades, including the launch of Standalone 5G (SA 5G).
“We’ve already deployed a multitude of capabilities on 5G NSA like Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), Augmented Reality and private networks,” added Watson. “But once we migrate to our new core and radio networks to SA 5G, the user experience will continue to grow. Notably with much lower latency, 5G NSA will allow us to launch new services.”
EE is currently in the process of swapping out Huawei equipment with products from Ericsson and Nokia. It says that although the switchover has been complicated by the pandemic, it is now accelerating the process and sees it as an opportunity to innovate.
It is monitoring the development of the OpenRAN ecosystem but says open radio technologies are unlikely to play a major role in its infrastructure until the end of the decade. This slightly delay, it suggests, will allow it to see how the market evolves and what use cases emerge, while also ensuring OpenRAN is reliable enough to support the Emergency Services Network (ESN) and other critical applications.
Ultimately, BT believes its investments in fibre and 5G will allow it to lead on network technology, and ensure it benefits financially from growing demand for data.
“We [in telecoms] are unfortunate in that we’re the only industry where customers can expect to use 50% more of our product each year for the same price,” said Allera, noting the increasing demand for data. “But our network will bring new experiences that provide monetisation opportunities if we’re creative around the propositions and the pricing models.
“What we’ve seen over the past 18 months is that connectivity and reliability of connection have become more important than price and reliability. The expectations we have of networks are now much greater and customers understand that not all providers are the same.”
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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.