Wednesday 19 June 2019

Three UK: Bringing A True 5G Experience

UK operator Three intends to launch 5G this August. They claim their 5G network will be the fastest in the UK, however it will at first only be available in London as a home broadband service. Three say their 5G home broadband customers will be able to plug a hub into the wall to immediately become connected, without lengthy engineer wait times or a long-term contract.

This "plug and play" 5G service is set to offer comparable speeds to fibre broadband, according to Three. The operator then plan to roll out both mobile and home broadband offerings in 25 towns and cities across the UK "before the end of the year".

It was back in November 2018, that Three UK announced its partnership with Huawei on a 5G broadband demo in London, with the service attaining download speeds of up to 2 Gbps. The demonstration utilized its 100 MHz C-Band spectrum and Huawei’s commercial 5G home broadband routers, with the partners reporting that speeds will average around 1 Gbps for each user. Three UK and Huawei had been working on pre-commercial tests in 2018, and said they will continue testing the service ahead of the public launch in dense urban areas and train stations in 2019.

Three UK previously owned less 3G and 4G spectrum than their rivals, but recognised that they may be better positioned to compete in future 5G services and so bought fixed wireless ISP UK Broadband Ltd. for £250m back in 2017 and  recently spent £164m to grab a small 20MHz slice of the 3.4GHz band in Ofcom’s auction.

As a result Three UK now has a total of about 144MHz (frequency) across several 5G friendly mobile bands and one of those includes a 100MHz block of contiguous spectrum in the 3.4-3.6GHz band, which is ideal for the new service (at present Vodafone only has 50MHz of 5G spectrum, while EE and O2 both hold 40Mhz).

Therefore Three UK are promising that their 5G service will be “at least 2x faster” than their rivals, although much of this depends upon whether they can keep up with the capacity requirements in order to fuel that. Rival operator EE, which has just gone live with their own 5G network (here), told consumers to expect speeds of around 100-150Mbps “even in the busiest areas” (i.e. we will expect 200-300Mbps from Three).

No doubt 5G technology is designed to cope with peak download speeds of 20Gbps but, just like with 4G and 3G before that, it often takes several years before networks are ready to handle such speeds. Ofcom will also be releasing a lot more spectrum in 2020 (i.e. the 700MHz and 3.6 – 3.8GHz bands), which is needed to support faster services and better coverage. As well as spectrum,Three have also been investing in high-capacity smart antennas, in order meet the anticipated future demand for data.

Three’s mobile customers (10 million strong over a network that covers over 99% of the UK population), are known to be particularly data-hungry and consume 3.5x more data per month than the industry average, because of their focus on “unlimited” style data and mobile broadband plans. Indeed the company also offers a 4G Home Broadband package with unlimited data from just £22 per month (HomeFi) and they have a dedicated wireless ISP brand called Three Broadband (formerly Relish).

According to Dave Dyson, chief executive of Three:

"It's clear that consumers and businesses want more and more data. We have the UK's best network for data and we have led the market on customer usage on both 3G and 4G technologies.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."
Dave Dyson further elaborated
“I’m really excited that 5G will bring a huge amount of capacity into the network, which is great for our mobile customers, but it also opens up different opportunities within the home broadband market, so I’d say that’s the most immediate opportunity. Obviously, there’s lots of talk about massive IoT and some of the more sci-fi type applications, remote robotics, and things like that. That will come. And I think things like network slicing are particularly interesting and potentially quite disruptive, which is good for 5G operators. This is a major investment into the UK’s digital infrastructure. UK consumers have an insatiable appetite for data and 5G unlocks significant capability to meet that demand.”
The focus on unlimited data and better speeds suggests that Three’s new 5G upgrade should be particularly attractive to consumers, possibly even enough to the point of stealing away some market share from fixed line broadband networks. Indeed Ovum once predicted that consumers will gobble 13 times more mobile data in 2025 than today, largely due to the advent of 5G. Ovum estimates that 5G wireless could replace traditional connections for 85 per cent of the UK’s 26 million fixed-line customers, with equal or better speeds. It is 
much quicker to deploy than fibre and almost 50 per cent cheaper, the research found.
“The low availability and high deployment costs of fibre make 5G wireless a viable alternative to fixedline broadband, satisfying customers’ fast-growing demand for data.”
says Dario Talmesio, principal analyst and practice leader at Ovum.

Over the next three years, Three's 5G rollout will continue to ramp up to cover 80% of its network traffic. The network investment programme also includes upgrades within Three’s 4G network, expected to deliver up to 400% improvements in speed and capacity.

The company boasts that it is the only operator that can offer a "true" 5G experience, as set out by the global standards body on 5G technology (which requires 100MHz of 5G spectrum, as set out by the ITU). They recently gave us a tester: the world’s first 5G mixed reality catwalk at London Fashion Week: 

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