At a briefing with journalists and analysts Vodafone UK’s head of networks Andrea Dona revealed the many considerations involved in upgrading the mobile network.

In a nutshell, it’s a delicate balancing act. Of course there’s the simple matter of not letting go with one hand (shutting down older technologies) before holding on with the other (getting standalone 5G properly set up). But there’s also the matter of trying to identify demand in order to ensure investment in upgrades will produce healthy returns.

UK telecoms regulator Ofcom seems acutely aware of this dilemma, sharing its unsolicited opinion on the matter of switch-offs last week. We asked Dona about that and he said there was nothing in Ofcom’s stated expectations that Vodafone hasn’t already thought about. In fact, it has already switched off one of its two 3G carriers and moved those subscribers onto VoLTE.

The core dilemma faced by all operators in the 5G era is that general demand, for example from streaming video, is always increasing, but it’s very difficult to get charge people more for that increased consumption. The consumer case for 5G has always been weak and it has been difficult to justify charging a premium for 5G, especially given its limited coverage. That’s one of the reasons why, so far, most of the 5G action has been from B2B use-cases.

On the matter of coverage, Dona conceded that Vodafone UK has only a third of the number of sites as an unspecified competitor (presumably EE) but has placed them “where they matter most”. That seems to be where extra capacity is most urgently needed. “The only route for additional capacity in some cases is 5G,” said Dona.

The general business difficulties experienced by MNOs, especially in Europe, was a recurring underlying theme. Dona said that if governments want a quicker 5G rollout they should do more to support operators. He was quick to stress that doesn’t mean direct handouts, but a more benign regulatory environment would help. As an example he flagged up the allocation of the upper 6GHz band, which he thinks should go to mobile rather than wifi.

Ultimately Dona was refreshingly frank about the challenges and trade-offs presented by the transition to standalone (i.e. proper) 5G. He reckons private networks may act as a proving ground for wider network use-cases, but those will take time to play out. In the meantime, a big part of his job is to find the optimal pace of 5G rollout, balancing all the competing factors involved. For more on that check out this analysis from Light Reading, which also attended the briefing.

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