EE Hits Back at O2's '5G Lite' Comments

By Tom Pritchard on at

Yesterday we brought you news that O2 had made some comments about the upcoming launch of 5G, specifically dismissing any possibility that it would be launching 5G services before the year 2020. While not mentioning it by name, the network took a swipe at rival EE by claiming any 5G services launching in 2019 would be '5G lite' - referencing the fact EE parent company BT announced its intention to launch its first commercial 5G services next year. Well EE has some thins to say about those comments.

We reached out to EE and BT about what O2 has been saying, and got to speak to Howard Jones, Head of Network Communications & Strategy at EE. He made it clear that any 5G EE launches in 2019 will be real 5G, using 5G radios to connect to 5G devices. It certainly won't be a more advance kind of 4G, which is what US network AT&T were called out for peddling as a 5G product last summer.

He also pointed out that a "full 5G product" likely won't be available in 2020 either, since the service will inevitably evolve over time - much like 4G did following the initial 2012 rollout. (Emphasis ours)

“5G will evolve massively after its launch, which we’re targeting for 2019 – and which will be real 5G with 5G devices.

“4G also evolved from launch to where we are now – we launched with 10MHz of spectrum, and now many of our sites have 65MHz live, so streaming and downloading is a totally different experience today – from a maximum of 50Mbps in 2012, to speeds in excess of 400Mbps now. And we introduced 4G Calling to the UK in 2016 – before that, voice calls were carried on 2G and 3G. All generations of mobile technology evolve from launch – there’s nothing different about 5G in that respect, and there’s no need for confusing terms like ‘5G Lite’."

Howard also pointed out that EE has been continuing the invest in 4G technologies, because the 5G service that will launch will be a non-standalone service. That means the 5G network will need to work in conjunction with existing 4G infrastructure, much like how 4G relied on 3G and 2G to make calls during its early days. Even O2 has admitted in the original interview that all networks will initially roll out a non-standalone 5G network, which 5G standards body 3GPP is due to specify in Release 15 later this year.

Howard also made a point similar to that of Intel's Alex Quach, who I spoke to at MWC in February, that everything will be network dependent. In short networks need to be in place before work can be done rolling out the more advanced 5G features. Features that will be advantageous for network slicing and Internet of Things connectivity, which he predicted probably won't even arrive until the middle of the next decade.

“We’ve always been clear to our technical audience that we’re launching with non-standalone 5G, based on 3GPP Release 15 Option 3. And we’ll be very clear with customers about the capabilities of our 5G at launch, and as we introduce new features that enable new experiences.”

 As for what EE's non-standalone 5G network will offer, he promised that customers would be able to take advantage of faster speeds, lower latency, and a greater network capacity - all of which will improve and evolve over time.

“5G, at launch, will be another significant step forward in the way consumers experience mobile broadband – lower latency than 4G and more capacity for users to share. And it will evolve over time to see more capacity, even lower latency, the ability to connect billions of devices, and the network slicing capability that opens up vertical markets and new applications."

As for the network's 5G rollout, which some have said would likely be a lot slower than 4G, Howard said that it would likely follow a similar path to EE's rollout of 4G - targeting the big cities that get a lot of foot traffic, with a similar goal of connecting the largest number of people possible. He also made it clear that because the 3.4GHz spectrum recently auctioned off by Ofcom is a higher spectrum than what we have now, the footprint is likely to be smaller for the simple fact that the signal doesn't travel as far.

It didn't sound like those rollout plans were set in stone, however, so it may change over the course of the next 12-or so months.

So that's what EE has to say about things, making its thoughts on the earlier-than-expected launch quite clear. It does make a lot of good points about the rollout, and it is fair to say we can't expect the full capabilities of 5G to be around at launch. I mean, when was the last time anything launched at full capacity anyway? There's no reason for mobile networks to be any different.

Even if the networks initial 5G services aren't up to scratch when they launch, provided they are using a proper 5G network and offer something superior to its own 4G services, who are we to complain?