How Vodafone can support its Unlimited ambitions

Vodafone goes Unlimited on 5G data, backed by a mostly Massive MIMO network.

Vodafone UK has launched 5G in the UK – enlisting F1 driver Lewis Hamilton to come and have his hand squeezed onto a red launch button by CEO Nick Jeffery.

Most eye catchingly, the operator has used its 5G launch to give birth to a range of unlimited data packages that vary on speed, not volume. It’s whole new brand/catchphrase thing is Be Unlimited.

How is Vodafone going to be able to offer unlimited data volumes at those sort of prices? Is it doing anything in the network that will give it something that other operators do not have?

The most notable thing is that Vodafone is deploying sites where it can with 64T/R Massive MIMO. Even though it is only using 40MHz bandwidth of its 3.5GHz spectrum (as per EE), this gives it the ability to extend coverage if it needs to, but also generate an effectively increased capacity via increased spectral efficiency. EE does have some 64T/R Massive MIMO sites, but it is generally speaking using an 8T/R setup for the majority of its sites. Vodafone will have some 8T/R sites where it cannot get enough site space for the larger and heavier, and more power hungry, antennas. But its default seems to be to go for the more extensive option. Three also has deployed 64T/R, and it has much more midband spectrum than the other two operators – but the Vodafone launch shows that Three is by no means the only UK operator to deploy massive MIMO across most of its sites, as it appeared to claim at its launch earlier this week.

Vodafone also now has a lot of fibre to move things around in its transmission network, although some at other operators have raised an eyebrow at the capacity Vodafone has stipulated to its actual sites – sometimes just 1Gbps although often 10Gbps as well.

Outside of London, where it has “unwound” its CTIL relationship with O2, Vodafone is launching mostly in its Western area, where it controls the sites within the mobile network infrastructure share. It is using mostly Huawei equipment, apart from in London where Ericsson is the provider. Ericsson said it is providing its  Baseband 6630 and Massive MIMO 6488 products to enable 5G on the 3.5GHz frequency.

Vodafone also said that it will use lower bands for 5G in 2021 by deploying Dynamic Spectrum Sharing. This is a technology that has been developed and then pushed through 3GPP specification by Vodafone. With Vodafone waiting until 2021 to deploy that, it looks as if it is either waiting for Huawei to make the feature available or that it will take a while to be able to extend to lower bands within its Ericsson areas. 

A Vodafone network specialist told us that the company has been getting about 600Mbps peak data rates on its good sites in London, although throughputs will be influenced by the load on the underlying LTE network that provides some aggregated bearers to 5G devices in EN-DC mode, whereby a device is simultaneously connected to the LTE and 5G radio layers.

Taken all together, it’s not clear that Vodafone has such a large network lead that it can uniquely offer these unlimited deals – so will we see others follow? Vodafone will be hoping not – at least for a while. It will want to attract a good chunk of new customers onto its network before the others have drawn their guns from their holsters to retaliate.

Here’s where Vodafone will face one hard challenge. Scott Petty, CTO, said the company wanted to revolutionise the customer relationship and ordering experience. It has been taking out old software and has been revivifying its back end systems and BSS. But it needs to be ready to back that up in the real world as it offers speed based pricing, tying together order management, policy management and enforcement (those speed tiers), charging and billing.