Vodafone has confirmed that it will begin its 5G roll out during 2019.
Second half of 2019
Possibly Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester
Updated 19th February 2019
Vodafone has amassed a decent amount of spectrum, won big at the recent 5G spectrum auction and is already carrying out various 5G trials, including some UK firsts.
It’s got big plans too, with a number of UK cities getting 5G trial networks and an ambitious goal to bring 1 gigabyte per second speeds to its customers at home, work and everywhere in between.
Vodafone is in no rush though, as while it plans to launch 5G in 2019 it probably won’t have widespread coverage until years after that. But doing things right is surely better than doing them fast, and its roll out timing and speed should still be roughly in line with most rivals.
Here’s everything you need to know about Vodafone 5G in the UK, including its launch plans, its spectrum holdings and what it's currently working on.
Vodafone plans to start offering 5G services in 2019, but hasn’t said anything more specific than that, so we wouldn’t expect 5G before the second half of the year. The network apparently plans to have 1,000 5G sites active by 2020.
This suggests Vodafone has accelerated its plans, as previously it said to expect 5G in early 2020. It’s a change that should help it keep pace with rival networks.
Vodafone has additionally said that it sees its 5G roll out as following a similar timeline to 4G, which is to say it will be gradual, with 50% of UK devices getting a 5G connection by the mid-2020’s.
Vodafone has named Cornwall and the Lake District as two of the first locations set to get 5G, which would seemingly mean an initial focus on rural rather than urban areas.
Other than the locations above, we don’t know which places will get Vodafone 5G first, but London is sure to be among them, as it’s the biggest UK city and as that’s where Vodafone’s 4G network started.
Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester may also be first in line, given that the network has announced trials in those cities (more on that below).
Vodafone hasn’t yet confirmed what 5G phones it will offer on its network, but we’d expect most of the big name ones, such as those from Samsung and OnePlus, would be offered on day one. We’ll update this section as soon as we hear more.
Vodafone has a large 4G network, with over 99% of the UK population covered at last count, which could help with 5G as well, because initially networks will likely use a mix of 5G and 4G technology.
This widespread coverage also shows that Vodafone has a strong commitment to upgrading and expanding its network, which will likely continue into 5G.
Indeed, we can some specific examples of recent upgrade work, such as building 4G antennae into manhole covers and phone boxes. Vodafone says this tech can easily be upgraded to allow for 5G in future.
Vodafone has also announced plans to extend its network sharing partnership with O2 to include 5G infrastructure, and it has struck a $550 million strategic partnership with IBM, which will see the latter run Vodafone’s cloud and hosting services.
The network is also focused on speed, as Vodafone also has a 4G LTE Advanced network in some locations, which can be seen as a stepping stone between standard 4G and 5G.
With all that in mind it seems likely that Vodafone would make a big push into 5G, potentially seeing it catapult ahead of rival networks and develop new technologies faster.
Vodafone came out of Ofcom’s recent 5G spectrum auction with 50MHz of 3.4GHz spectrum, which it paid £378,240,000 for and specifically acquired the 3410MHz – 3460MHz part of the band.
That’s more than any other rival acquired, as EE and O2 each got 40MHz while Three won just 20MHz. That could put Vodafone in a strong early 5G position, as 3.4GHz spectrum should be ideal for the upcoming technology, though notably Three already had some before the auction.
Vodafone also has 176MHz of immediately useable spectrum in other bands. This is less suited to 5G and Vodafone has less of it than EE, but it still has a reasonable amount.
Immediately useable spectrum
|3.4GHz held||3.4GHz allocation||Total spectrum held|
Note: 'Immediately useable spectrum' refers to spectrum in various bands that can be used now for 4G, 3G and 2G. Vodafone holds spectrum in the 800MHz, 900MHz, 1.4GHz, 1.8GHz, 2.1GHz and 2.6GHz bands.
Note also that Vodafone should have plenty of opportunities to acquire more spectrum, as Ofcom is set to auction off some in the 3.6GHz – 3.8GHz range and the 700MHz band at some point, and is also planning to look into other frequency bands that might have auctionable spectrum suited to 5G.
Vodafone has launched what it calls the UK’s first full 5G trial. Specifically, it switched on a 5G site in Salford, Greater Manchester, which it says is the first in the UK to carry full 5G over a commercial network.
This trial uses 3.4GHz spectrum and is the first of many, with the network also launching full 5G trials in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and London. During 2019, it will switch on 5G networks in the Scottish Highlands, Cornwall, the Lake District and other locations.
Vodafone has also switched on a public 5G trial at Manchester Airport, with similar trials set to launch in some other airports, as well as some train stations, soon. Plus, it’s now testing 5G in smartphone-sized devices.
And Vodafone’s focus on speed has already hit a major milestone, as in partnership with Huawei it’s achieved 20Gbps speeds in a 5G field test.
These trials and Vodafone’s 5G plans in general are part of a ‘Gigabit UK’ plan the network has, which would see customers able to access speeds of 1Gbps or more wherever they are, using a combination of 5G and fast fixed broadband.
Other development activities
Vodafone seems primarily focused on speed and Internet of Things (IoT) applications with 5G, but it’s starting with the basics, and has partnered with Huawei, Nokia, Qualcomm, Ericsson and Intel to both research 5G and prepare its network for the technology transition.
Vodafone has already started working towards a 5G network, including building some Massive MIMO sites in the UK. Massive MIMO base stations use 64 transmit and 64 receive streams, rather than the two elements used by current antennas. It's a foundational 5G technology which will allow more data to be transferred as well as improving coverage, and Vodafone claims to be the first European network to deploy it.
And when it comes to the Internet of Things, Vodafone isn’t even waiting for 5G to expand its capabilities, as it plans to add Narrowband-IoT support to its existing network to bring 5G-like benefits ahead of time, by improving indoor coverage and supporting a high number of low-power devices within close proximity.
It’s already carried out a Narrowband-IoT test on a live commercial network, so we may see the fruits of its labour soon, but we’d expect even better IoT services from Vodafone once 5G does arrive.
Plus, it has been revealed that Vodafone Ireland has been working on connected car technology (a key example of the IoT) for years now.
Vodafone is also launching a new Innovation Hub at The Landing in MediaCityUK, Salford. This will provide a workspace where businesses can access 5G resources.
Finally, Vodafone has also explained that 5G could massively reduce the usage of fixed Wide Area Networks (WAN) and Local Area Networks (LAN), so that’s another thing the company is clearly looking at.