BT laid out what it claimed was the most ambitious and complete network vision ever seen in the UK, pledging nationwide 5G coverage by 2028 and an expanded convergence play, while revealing plans to sunset 2G and 3G and tempering immediate open RAN intentions.

At the company’s Network Vision Event, consumer division CEO Marc Allera (pictured, right) said its EE mobile network must match recent group commitments around fixed infrastructure and fibre, with demand for mobile network capacity growing at a rate of 40 per cent every year.

Allera said EE aimed to offer 5G connectivity anywhere by 2028 and complete “the UK’s only fully converged network” by the mid-2020s, enabling full integration of fibre, Wi-Fi and mobile, dubbed “smart network”.

On 5G, Allera explained in practice, EE’s macro network would cover more than 90 per cent of UK landmass by 2028 and anything beyond this would be supported by “requestable 5G solutions”, ensuring connectivity in challenging terrains, remote locations and festivals in fields, for example.

The company plans to deploy recently-acquired 700MHz 5G spectrum across “the majority of its sites”, offering stronger indoor and wider coverage.

In the shorter term, it is targeting 5G access in 50 per cent of the country by early 2023.

Allera added EE “was going even further” to achieve full nationwide coverage, opening up on a recent deal with OneWeb, as part of a drive to explore the use of air and space technologies including drones, satellites and high-altitude platforms “to connect the most challenging parts of the UK”.

“Ultimately we want it to make on-demand connectivity as easy for customers as hailing an Uber, or topping up their data,” he said.

Its 4G rollout will also be boosted, with plans to add 4,500 square miles of new signal, reaching more than 90 per cent of the UK by 2025. The company will also use this investment to support the government’s Emergency Services Network.

No rush on open RAN
CTO of BT Networks Howard Watson (pictured, left) updated on the company’s progress in swapping out high-risk vendor equipment from its network, with targets for removing Huawei kit from its 5G infrastructure set for 2027.

Watson said it “had been challenging to make progress on this” during the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, but it had started swapping out sites in a number of cities and would now accelerate its work as much of the logistical planning was complete.

With the removal of Huawei equipment underway, Watson said an open RAN approach “had a future role to play in the diversification of the supply chain of our networks”.

However, he added majority and maturity of technology was particularly important when providing services, so it did not expect open RAN to play “a more critical and significant role” in BT’s network until the latter part of the decade.

On whether this timeframe would put the company at a competitive disadvantage, Watson admitted at least “one of the operators had ambitions to do that earlier”, (presumably Vodafone UK), but for EE it was critical to swap Huawei equipment and that was where the focus was today.

“I don’t think we’ll miss out on any functional capability. By taking that little bit longer, it will allow us to see that technology mature,” he added.

Ending 2G and 3G
Allera added as EE continues to welcome in the 5G age, it was time to “say goodbye to our legacy 2G and 3G networks”.

Noting traffic on the networks continued to decline, EE said it was the first operator in the nation to set a timeframe to stop supporting 3G, in 2023. The same fate awaits for 2G, although it did not commit to anything beyond “later in the decade”.

“By sunsetting these networks, we reduce the complexity of our overall network, we’re going to free up resources and we can reuse valuable spectrum for 4G and 5G,” Allera added.