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O2's UK 5G network has been live for a few months and it met its goal of having 20 UK cities live by the end of 2019.
O2 plans to have 50 locations live for 5G by the summer of 2020. While O2 was the third of the big four UK networks to go live, it's not really fair to say that it's playing catchup, largely because the number of people on 5G contracts currently is still fairly low across the board.
However, O2 has a large customer base to preach the benefit of 5G to - it remains the UK's biggest phone network serving over 25 million connections. If you take into account O2's MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) customer base including Giffgaff, Tesco Mobile, Sky Mobile and Lycamobile, O2 manages a total of 34.1 million connections. O2 owns Giffgaff outright while Tesco Mobile is a joint venture with Tesco).
O2 spent much of 2019 focused on making its 4G network (which is, of course, the backbone for 5G) as good as it could be and said it was investing around £2 million a day into its infrastructure. It's now determined to make a success of 5G, despite not being as lucky as some with the previous division of spectrum from Ofcom.
“We’re moving at pace with our 5G rollout," said Mark Evans, O2's CEO. "5G offers critical support to the UK’s digital economy, supporting jobs and growth.
"That’s why we welcome Ofcom’s recent statement updating the rules for the planned auction of more 5G airwaves. This will help operators to deliver greater value and better connectivity to the public."
Let's now look at where O2 5G is available.
O2 5G cities and towns
O2 originally launched 5G in each of the UK's capital cities - London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast in a similar move to the other networks. O2 also rolled out 5G to Leeds (where it has an office) as well as O2's home town of Slough where its head office is based.
However it has now announced another 13 locations have 5G - Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Derby, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Nottingham, Sheffield and Stoke.
That means O2 met its 20-strong rollout goal for 2019 and its next aim is to cover 50 UK towns and cities by summer 2020.
“It is brilliant to hit our target of 20 towns and cities connected to our next-generation network as we head into 2020,” said Derek McManus, COO of Telefónica UK (O2's parent company).
“I believe 5G is going to revolutionise the way people and businesses use mobile connectivity, unlocking huge possibilities for our economy and society. We’re excited about getting it into the hands of our customers across the UK, and continuing to work with our partners to help shape the future of 5G for the next generation.”
Next on the list is Blackpool, Bournemouth, Eton, Guildford, Leicester, Lisburn, Reading, Stoke and Windsor. This next phase of the rollout is currently slated for March.
There's a bit of creativity here - putting Eton and Windsor separately is a bit of a cop-out considering they are pretty much the same place and super-close to also-listed Slough for that matter.
By Summer 2020, the extra 30 places that'll be 5G-enabled are Aberdeen, Bradford, Brighton, Birkenhead, Birmingham, Cambridge, Glasgow, Hove, Kingston, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, Milton Keynes, Newbury, Newcastle, Northampton, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Southampton, Sunderland, Warrington and Wolverhampton. Again, it's tempting to conclude that listing Brighton and Hove separately is a little desperate.
O2 has also brought 5G to major transport hubs and entertainment venues. The O2 in London's North Greenwich is an obvious target there, as is Twickenham Stadium because of its sponsorship of the England Rugby team.
O2 5G phones
O2 has it has only recently announced the Oppo Reno 5G and Huawei Mate 20 X have joined its range of Xiaomi and Samsung phones.
The landscape for 5G phones will be significantly different as 2020 goes on, so expect there to be lots of new phone launches as well as announcements at Mobile World Congress in late February - and beyond.
Huawei Mate 20 X 5G
Huawei’s first 5G phone is really rather large at 7.2-inches - not exactly a mainstream screen size. Still, this huge phone will impress you with its hardware and software prowess and it features all the Google apps you've come to expect - it's unaffected by Huawei’s trade ban in the US.
The Mate 20 X 5G is powered by Huawei’s own, powerful, Kirin 980 platform and Balong 5000 5G modem. There's also a 4,200mAh battery, 128GB storage plus fast 40W charging.
Oppo Reno 5G
Oppo's 6.6-inch 5G handset has only just been announced for O2, so deals are still fairly scarce. It's a fairly new brand to the UK (in terms of smartphones, at least) but the company also owns OnePlus and so knows the UK market. Oppo is hoping to make hay with Huawei's trade ban from the US now having a practical impact in terms of bundling Google apps with new handsets. It certainly seems like Oppo is a name we'll be hearing a lot more about in 2020. As you might expect, this phone has a lot of similar tech to the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G available from EE (as is this phone, coincidentally). The standout features are to do the cameras, though. The front camera is most striking as it pops out in a 'shark fin' style from the top of the phone (see picture above). The rear camera is where the most interesting tech is, though - it has a 10x hybrid zoom lens (5x optical, enhanced by digital). That means you can grab some pretty great shots. It's available in ocean green and comes with a capacious 256GB of storage.
Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G
Based around Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 platform, this Xiaomi handset doesn't lack in power, but it is a less well-known brand in case that bothers you. Xiaomi makes good phones though and the company has designs on larger market share in Europe. It's also not the most attractive here. But that said, it's currently the cheapest 5G phone you can get your hands on and for that alone it's worth a look. There’s a pop-up dual front camera plus you get dual 12 megapixel cameras on the rear.
Samsung A90 5G
Samsung has not been slow to put 5G-capable phones on sale, with the two handsets below with us first. However, the pricing on the Galaxy S10 5G and Note 10+ 5G are a bit too premium for many and Samsung hasn't been slow to realise that. The A Series is, notionally, Samsung's mid-range phone lineup, but the top handsets are nudging closer to the S Series in terms of what they can do. Indeed, the A90 5G spec sheet is barely indistinguishable from the S10 5G and also has a same-sized 6.7-inch display, too. There's also an octocore processor, 48 megapixel main camera (part of a triple lens setup) and 128GB of storage, so plenty of space for your stuff.
Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
Powered by Samsung's own Exynos 9820 platform and 5G modem, the S10 5G was Samsung’s first 5G handset and has now been joined by the two other Samsung handsets here. The 5G version of the S10 is actually more Galaxy Note-sized. Indeed, it's even bigger than the 6.4-inch S10+ at an almost-ridiculous 6.7-inches. You get a larger battery to match at 4,500 mAh. There's also a quad-lens rear camera including wide, telephoto and ultrawide lenses.
Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G
Only slightly larger than the above S10 5G - by a mere 0.1-inches - this is a 6.8-inch supersized version of Samsung’s Galaxy Note. It's very similar to the S10 5G, although there are some compromises compared to that model, notably in the camera department where there's a triple instead of quad camera and on the front there's a single rather than dual. Of course, what you do get with every Galaxy Note is Samsung's excellent S Pen stylus that slots into the bottom of the phone (on one side). If you don't need the stylus, get the S10 5G instead.
O2 5G coverage
O2 remains owned by Spanish firm Telefónica who have several times tried to sell it, including back to BT (which O2 was spun out from in 2002). BT, of course, ended up buying EE instead. However, O2 is closest to another network - it has a long-standing network sharing deal with Vodafone.
The two networks have coordinated their efforts for some time - the key benefit behind is that they can speed up the rollout of 5G by sharing key infrastructure - the physical network sites where cell towers are based, the fibre backhaul as well as the mast and cell equipment.
Now that the UK Government has introduced a 35 percent cap for 5G network equipment from so-called "high risk" vendors such as Huawei it's going to cause a bit of upheaval for some mobile networks but O2 says it has already to committed to using gear from Nokia and Ericsson.
As 5G becomes the norm, it will also help each to bring 5G services to areas where it may not have been financially viable otherwise.
The pair's agreement for the rollout sees 2,700 sites in 23 larger UK towns and cities keep separate provision for each network. So while the mast will remain shared, all the other equipment will be separate. That's presumably a matter if control and also, possibly, ensuring each retains a competitive edge.
O2 is using Ericsson Cloud Core technology in its main network as well as in the Radio Access Network (RAN). Coincidentally, Ericsson says it now has more than 70 5G agreements with networks, 21 of which are now live.
O2 5G deals
O2 has a range of unlimited data plans (limitless) in an effort to match the recently-announced unlimited plans from Vodafone who were followed by EE (Three already had unlimited tariffs, of course). O2's SIM-only unlimited plans start at £35 per month. These Limitless plans are also available as part of O2's Family and Student plans, too.
If you're OK with things being slightly more limited, there is a 50GB SIM-only data plan available for £25 a month. That'll bag you unlimited minutes and unlimited texts as well as O2 Priority access like all of O2's tariffs. You can also roam at no extra cost in 75 destinations including the USA.
O2's 5G custom plans give you freedom on the contract term, data allowance and upfront cost for your 5G phone. You can also choose how much you want to pay upfront and how to spread the remaining cost between 3 and 36 months. Furthermore, you can also flex your 5G data allowance up or down every month to suit your needs.
In the light of the freebies offered by other networks, O2 has now launched O2 Extras which, essentially offers digital perks for O2 customers via the MyO2 platform. This includes Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Music Unlimited, Audible (also owned by Amazon), the Cafeyn newstand app and international bolt-ons. Like offerings from other networks, you can pick the one that suits you.
O2 Extras is available to both new and upgrading O2 Pay Monthly customers on handset, tablet and SIM only contracts. However, there are some caveats as to the duration of your membership.
New customers and those upgrading to contracts of 30GB/month will get six-month memberships , while those on 5GB – 30GB/month will have three-months.
O2 5G broadband
O2 hasn't yet announced any plans for a 5G home or business broadband service, but considering its key rivals all have, we think it's only a matter of time before it starts talking about this.
O2 5G for business
O2 believes that 5G is "one of the biggest opportunities for 5G is its potential to transform businesses. 5G is more than just pure connectivity. It has the potential to transform every sector it touches".
The network has published two documents that will be of interest for businesses thinking of moving to 5G services. The first is a full guide to 5G for businesses on O2 (direct PDF link) and the second is a 5G whitepaper for CTOs that you need to give your details for.
O2 has launched 5G business tariffs to suit businesses of every size, whatever the data requirements. SMB and Enterprise customers will benefit from 5G Access, details of which will be announced in the following months.
As we mentioned earlier, O2 has been working with NWG to explore ways in which remote workers will be assisted by 5G, as well as the potential for it in more traditional workplaces.
O2 has also announced a partnership with Samsung and the NHS to test 5G in six ambulances from the East of England Ambulance Trust to see how 5G can help paramedics treat patients through better connectivity and therefore better access to real-time video and scanning.
You're able to buy each of the 5G phones above on a business tariff. O2 has also announced it's the exclusive UK partner for Microsoft's Surface Pro X 2-in-1, although it will only be available on 4G for now from £44.78 per month for 500MB data with a £20 upfront payment.