EE readies UK’s first live 5G trial but rival networks still aren’t convinced

EE has announced it will be switching on the UK’s first live consumer 5G trial this October, but is all as it seems? Rival mobile network operator Three may think not.

The EE 5G trial (or BTEE 5G trial, following the mega-merger between BT and EE) is set to take place in London’s Tech City – an umbrella term for the area around the Old Street roundabout – and will see 10 sites upgraded with the next-gen network technology.

Five small businesses and five homes have been selected as guinea pigs for EE’s 5G tech using prototype broadband devices, ahead of the network’s promised 5G consumer rollout in 2019.

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Predictably, BTEE brass are excited by the real-world testing, with BT Consumer CEO Marc Allera saying that the live trial “is a big step forward in making the benefits of 5G a reality for our customers.”

However, Three CEO Dave Dyson is taking a more circumspect view of UK 5G rollout, admitting that a finalised consumer 5G proposition is still very much a “work in progress”.

“I’m not so keen to rush a trial just to say we were the first to trial 5G. For us, it needs to be a meaningful trial so when handsets are available and routers are available we’re in a position to push quite hard. We think that will be the middle of 2019,” Dyson told Trusted Reviews at a Three 5G preview event in London.

It’s as thinly veiled as references come, though he added that expedited rollout of 5G could prove attractive to some – even if it there wasn’t much substance to it.

“People were prepared to pay a premium for something [4G] that wasn’t hugely differentiated. People intuitively think the next technology is better – they want to show off a bit,” he said.

Dyson’s comments echo the sceptical stance of O2, in which it said that an EE deployment of 5G before 2020 would represent little more than ‘5G Lite’.

“Any UK operator launching ‘5G’ before 2020 would be using a ‘lite version’ of 5G,” O2 told 5G.co.uk.

‘5G Lite’ is simply a turn of phrase, but the point being made by O2 here is clear: any UK network promising 5G capabilities in 2019 that represent a significant improvement over the current 4G state-of-play has its work cut out for it.

This is largely because the 4G to 5G shift isn’t going to be as pronounced the leap from 3G to 4G. While moving to 4G enabled smartphone users to do a number of new things, like seamlessly stream video on-the-go, the jump to 5G will be a more subtle one that improves less sexy things like wireless broadband and IoT-connected devices.

In fact, 5G is based on the same LTE frequency range as 4G, so while network speeds will of course be enhanced with the new technology (2Gbps downlink rates are technically possible with 5G), it will be network capacity that gets the biggest boost – something that’s less plain to see to the naked eye.

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Whatever the reality, expect the hype around 5G to reach nauseating levels next year, as the first 5G-ready mobile devices are likely to be released in the second-half of 2019.

When do you think we’ll start to see the real benefits of 5G? Tweet your thoughts to us @TrustedReviews.