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EE's live trial in Canary Wharf is the UK's latest 5G 'first'

Friday, October 5th 2018 by Phil Wilkinson-Jones

EE has today switched on the UK’s first live trial of 5G, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve read that claim before as there seems to be no shortage of 5G ‘firsts’ at the moment.

Earlier this year Vodafone conducted the first test of 5G spectrum on a live network (it may not sound like it but this is different to what EE is doing) and only last month the government announced a £75m trial that would make the West Midlands “the UK’s first 5G area”.

What makes the EE trial a first is that it’s “live”, which means it’s being tested out there in the real world – in this case Montgomery Square in Canary Wharf – rather than in a lab.

Engineers will be testing both the spectrum – or airwaves – used to send 5G signals and the devices that will be connecting to it, analysing the network’s performance in terms of speed, capacity and coverage.

EE has already announced that it will be switching on 10 more trial sites throughout east London in October, with a handful of households and businesses given prototype 5G devices to help put the new network to the test.

Testing 5G spectrum

While EE has been able to lay claim to launching the UK’s first live 5G trial, it’s likely that its rival mobile operators won’t be too far behind.

Vodafone is set to begin trials in seven cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, London and Manchester – before the end of the year and has said its 5G trial will be the most comprehensive to date, with applications including virtual and augmented reality in factories, offices and hospitals.

As mentioned, Vodafone also conducted the first test of 5G spectrum across an existing live network back in April. Carried out just a week after Ofcom’s spectrum auction, it was the first time the 3.4GHz radio frequency allocated for 5G had been used in the UK.

More recently – and strikingly – Vodafone conducted the UK’s first holographic call using 5G when Man City and England footballer Steph Houghton appeared on stage in 3D at Vodafone’s offices in Newbury despite being nearly 200 miles away in Manchester.

Virtual reality

O2 is installing a 5G testbed at The O2 and plans to allow customers to experience the technology through a series of virtual reality, augmented reality and live streaming demonstrations.

Its network trials have included using LED light bulbs to transmit data at high speeds, a system the company describes as LiFi and says has the potential to rival the ubiquitous wifi, which uses radio frequencies.

The government’s own efforts to push 5G include a trial that will see Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton given £75m of public money to develop technologies such as live video streaming to support ambulance paramedics. Jaguar Land Rover and the West Midlands Combined Authority will also work together to develop driverless cars.

Academics at the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre have also made advances in their development of 5G, with the centre opening up its own test network – capable of supporting more than a million users – for research and innovation.

So what does all of this mean? Research and testing is all very well and good but when will a 5G network be launched commercially?

EE and Vodafone both reckon they'll start switching on live 5G sites sometime in 2019, with O2 and Three likely to follow in 2020. Actually utilising a 5G network, for many of us, will also mean owning a 5G-ready phone. The first of these are also likely to appear in the first half of next year, with Sony, LG and Motorola among the manufacturers already working on 5G models.

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