Vodafone UK sees £8.6bn gain for SMEs from faster 5G SA rollout

  • Vodafone UK is still wooing regulators with regard to a proposed merger with Three UK

  • Group CEO Margherita Della Valle said during MWC the deal would help push 5G into rural areas of the country

  • 5G continues to scale slowly in the U.K.

Vodafone UK remains on a mission to convince regulators about the potential benefits of its proposed merger with rival mobile operator Three UK. A fresh report commissioned by the operator is its latest effort to demonstrate the economic gains of a joint 5G network rollout.

In a report it produced together with WPI Strategy, the operator claims 5G standalone (5G SA) has the potential to deliver up to £8.6 billion (roughly $10.9 billion) a year in productivity savings for small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) in the U.K.

According to the report, 5G SA could help the nation’s 5.6 million SMEs improve their operations through new low-latency applications. The problem, Vodafone said, is that the pace of deployment is too slow, and the country's 5G SA rollout is “far behind where it needs to be for these potential benefits to become reality.”

While calling for more support from government and regulators “to create a pro-investment environment for mobile network infrastructure,” Vodafone again pointed out that it has committed to invest £11 billion ($13.9 billion) in 5G SA to cover 99% of the population by 2034 — should the merger with Three UK be approved.

The proposed Vodafone UK/Three UK merger is currently being scrutinized by Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which launched phase one of its investigation in January 2024. 

During a keynote at MWC Barcelona 2024, Vodafone Group CEO Margherita Della Valle commented that the merger will drive 5G “to all the areas that need it so badly."

She added "It will have a very positive impact on the U.K. economy. And we’ve also said it very clearly, we’re not going to change our pricing policies as a consequence.”

5G SA is scaling up, but slowly

The new report represents the latest salvo by Vodafone, which previously claimed a speedier rollout of 5G SA could be worth as much as £7.4 billion ($9.4 billion) in additional economic value by 2030 compared to a slower rollout.

Funny how that number keeps creeping up.

Vodafone UK has already launched a consumer 5G SA service under the 5G Ultra brand. However, Three UK is currently still in non-standalone mode.

Last week, rival Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) became the second U.K. operator to launch a 5G SA network. The operator said the network will initially be switched on in 14 cities, with more to come later in 2024.

BT, which owns mobile operator EE, has yet to announce when it will switch on its standalone 5G network, but indications are that a launch will take place this year.

Scarce standalone

To be sure, 5G SA launches remain relatively scarce at a global level, although deployments are gradually picking up. GSMA Intelligence (GSMAi) revealed this week that of the 261 commercial 5G services available, 47 are provided by 5G SA networks, with a further 89 planned deployments in the near term.

The GSMAi also noted that the availability of 5G-Advanced with 3GPP Release 18 will be another key 5G milestone. It said its data shows over half of operators expect to begin deploying 5G-Advanced within a year after commercial availability of 5G-Advanced solutions, driven by priority use cases such as 5G multi-cast services and low-cost IoT support.

Peter Jarich, head of GSMAi, claimed that 5G SA “brings home 5G’s early promise, particularly where slicing, low-latency and massive IoT capabilities tied to enterprise service needs can be met. 5G-Advanced will only extend that further.”