Understanding Vodafone’s “Full 5G” claim

Making sense of the "Full 5G" claim for Vodafone's live 5G deployment in Manchester.

Vodafone 5G antenna manchesterVodafone has press released the go-live of its 5G site in Manchester. This is a showpiece site, covering the MediaCity area, and is the first of seven city areas scheduled to get 5G coverage, followed by some rural sites in Scotland, The Lake District and Cornwall.

Vodafone said the deployment was the first of “full 5G” in the UK. Other trials and pilots, it said, had either connected back to a lab or test environment, or somehow utilised LTE as part of the deployment, or used a non commercial or temporary link as transmission.

So what is Vodafone’s deployment? Vodafone Head of Networks Kye Prigg told TMN it is a permanent deployment of commercial 5G NR, deployed in Non Standalone (NSA) mode, anchored to the existing LTE core – that is to say Vodafone’s commercial, production EPC. The 5G NR and the EPC vendor are not the same – therefore Vodafone has deployed with multi-vendor interoperability between 5G NR and its EPC.

The operator has also provided an upgraded 10Gb transmission link from the 5G base station site back to its RedStream IP Core. (It has also, somewhat confusingly, on occasion described this transmission element as its “5G Core” – so if you see this term bear in mind it does not refer to a ngCore that would enable 5G in StandAlone mode.)

One additional claim that Vodafone made in its PR, that it doesn’t use LTE to “complete the service”, is therefore a trifle confusing. It does use its LTE core as the anchor, therefore requiring an element of the LTE network. But what Vodafone is trying to state is that the air interface is all commercial 5G NR.

So is this enough to be a “First” and what of that “full 5G” claim?

EE’s Canary Wharf site, which also uses 5G NR over 3.5GHz spectrum, is anchored to a dedicated EPC based in a lab, rather than to EE’s production core that handles its LTE devices and traffic. That will also be the case for its other East London sites when they go live.

So in that regard, Vodafone is perhaps justified in claiming its own “first” – first live 5G site connected to commercial EPC. Calling that “Full 5G”, however, is probably more a matter of judgement.

There’s no doubt that EE’s was the UK’s first live 5G NR site using commercial radio equipment in commercial spectrum, and that’s still justified despite siting the core element in its lab. But Vodafone has also advanced things by stitching its 5G NR to its production EPC, and thereby claiming a permanent, end-to-end 5G deployment.

Shall we give them both a sticker?

If you want to understand more about the world of the 5G First, you can pre-register here for TMN’s upcoming 5G Tracker service