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EE to launch UK's first 5G service in May

EE will switch on its 5G service in six UK cities on 30 May, the first mobile network in the UK to do so.

People in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester will be first to get faster services with plans for 10 more cities to be added this year.

Prices for 5G - which will require new handsets - will start at £54 per month for 10 gigabytes of data.

Rival Vodafone plans to launch its 5G service in July.

"This is the start of the UK's 5G journey and great news for our customers that want and need the best connections," said Marc Allera, chief executive of BT's consumer division, which owns EE.

It admits that this is just phase one of its roll-out, with "full next-generation 5G" not available until 2022.

Several other countries have announced 5G services, including South Korea and the US.

EE promised three major improvements for customers making the swap from 4G to 5G:

  • Increased capacity - making it easier to get service in busy places such as railway stations and stadiums
  • Average speeds will go up to 150Mbps (megabits per second) compared with a top speed of 50Mbps when 4G was launched. Some customers will get speeds of up to one gigabit, with improvements for everyone over time
  • Low latency - of particular benefit for online games and new services such as those utilising augmented reality

The mobile operator has also signed an exclusive deal with Niantic, the makers of Pokemon Go, to carry its augmented reality game Harry Potter: Wizards United game when it launches in the UK in the summer.

Matthew Howett, a mobile analyst with research firm Assembly, said: "To convince consumers to make the leap from 4G to 5G, it's important to communicate that it's more than just about speed.

"While peak download speeds will be faster, crucially there will be more capacity, which will allow for a whole host of new applications and services."

Huawei's role

There have been concerns raised about the role played by Chinese firm Huawei, which supplies network equipment to the UK's mobile operators for their roll-out of 5G, following the US decision to curb its ability to do business in America.

Mr Allera told the BBC that EE does currently use Huawei's equipment, although it is in the process of removing it from its 4G network.

"There is no current government guidance to suggest we should not use Huawei, but if the guidance changes will will reconsider. That will be disruptive but there are other people that provide equipment," he said.

But Mr Howett thinks that a ban on Huawei could be problematic, not just for EE but for all the UK's operators, because it is in a significant part of their networks.

"There is little interoperability between vendors, which means it is difficult to deploy non-Huawei 5G equipment alongside existing Huawei 4G equipment.

"A ban would require operators to replace such equipment before they could deploy 5G technology," he said.

EE is planning to add 100 new 5G sites each month.

That will gradually bring coverage to:

  • Bristol
  • Coventry
  • Leicester
  • Nottingham
  • Sheffield
  • Liverpool
  • Hull
  • Leeds
  • Newcastle

Ten more towns and cities will get services in 2020, including Aberdeen, Cambridge, Derby, Gloucester, Peterborough, Plymouth and Portsmouth.

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