O2 kickstarts the UK's 5G charm offensive to consumers

As the arrival of 5G edges ever closer, bold declarations are being made about early launches, new network technologies and revolutionary applications.

Most of these tend to be from the major equipment vendors based in the US, Scandinavia and China and operators from the US, Japan and South Korea rather than from Britain.

Don’t be fooled. All four major networks are working on 5G and there is a recognition that the UK doesn’t need to be the absolute first to gain a leadership role. The government has repeatedly stated that it wants to be a 5G leader, and many believe Britain’s research capabilities and startup community will ensure it has a seat at the top table.

At industry and government events, 5G has been present in conversations about technology, business models and regulation, and there have been moves to “generate hype” among businesses. But there has been precious little shared with consumers. Until now.


To date, much of the hype has been around network technologies such as slicing and spectrum, or how low latency and high capacity will transform industry. In a consumer market where speed, reliability and cost are the most important factors, 5G has been nothing but a buzzword.

However last month, O2 revealed it was going to turn the O2 into a 5G testbed, giving its customers the chance to experience the technology ahead of a commercial launch. 

And earlier this week it published a report outlining how local councils and households could save £6 billion a year by embracing 5G technology, showing the very real effects the networks could have on the public.

O2’s two announcements are first real examples of a UK operator making 5G relateable to consumers and the first strike in a marketing war that will take us up until the anticipated 2020 commercial launch. Local services, household bills and health were all areas the report claimed could be made more efficient and all are emotive subjects for families.

Of course, there was a lobbying element to the report. It’s virtually impossible to attend any event these days without hearing about how out of date planning regulations and high spectrum costs will reduce investment in infrastructure, and the presence of Margot James, the new minister for digital at the launch of the report was testament to that.

There’s still a long way to in the UK’s 5G journey, but by starting its charm offensive first, O2 will hope to become associated with 5G in the same way that EE has become with 4G and that consumers will remember this when their contract comes up for renewable.

But there are downsides to such an approach. Last month at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Vodafone announced it was going to help deploy a 4G network on the moon. The response from many was that they couldn’t even get a decent 4G signal in their house.

There is a danger that some customers might feel neglected if they read that O2 is investing significant amounts of money in a new network when the existing service isn’t meeting their needs.

O2’s argument would be that it is expanding coverage having already met its 800MHz spectrum licence obligation of 98 percent and that it spends £2 million on its network every day.

COO Derek McManus reiterated O2’s stance that LTE would provide the base for 5G and that the solutions to making 5G deployment easier are the same with 4G. The message being that the 4G network would benefit from any 5G investment.

O2’s report will get people talking, and that’s of benefit to the entire mobile industry as it collectively seeks to develop new use cases and revenue streams. But O2 will obviously gain the most.

What an operator is actually doing and what it is perceived to be doing are two vastly different things. Within the industry, we’ve been talking about 5G for years, but O2’s report could be the first time some people have ever heard of it and it surely won’t be long before the other operators start talking too.

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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.