• O2 UK flags 5G coverage expansion, matching rivals by some metrics.
  • Apparent rollout successes come ahead of further delayed UK spectrum auction, now pushed back to March.
  • 5GCreate partnership indicates continued innovation effort.

O2 battles for 5G leadership

O2 battles for 5G leadership

Source: O2

Telefónica UK (O2 UK) continued its 5G network expansion and flagged heightened ambition to encourage 5G uptake in the country.

In mid-January 2021, the operator’s coverage reached 150 towns and cities. It means O2 can claim its rollout is thus far on track, with limited availability in several new locations — including newly reached Bournemouth, Doncaster, and Southampton. It is also said to have improved coverage in larger cities including Birmingham, London, and Manchester.

Looking good, from some angles

O2 was a little late to launch its 5G network, besting only Three UK in its October 2019 entrance when compared with the four mobile network operators (MNO). However, it looks to be catching up with its rivals steadily, thanks perhaps to an early commitment to Ericsson and Nokia rather than the since-frozen out Huawei (Telefónicawatch, #140 and passim).

EE casts doubt

In a pointed blog posted on the same day as O2’s announcement, BT Consumer Managing Director Marc Allera highlighted the various, vague metrics MNOs reference when marketing their 5G coverage.

Allera’s EE claims to have reached 125 “locations” — denoting 5G availability in 125 towns and cities across the UK — but noted that it could claim to cover “around 200” if it were to “loosen its criteria like some competitors”.

The thinly veiled attack also criticised the data behind Vodafone UK’s claim to have the “best” 5G in London and Three UK’s claim to be “the UK’s fastest”.

O2 UK Chief Operating Officer Derek McManus opted to play the green card for his part: “we’re proud of leading the charge from an environmental point of view, with 67% of our estate powered by renewable energy as we work with landlords to encourage usage of more renewable sources”.

OperatorLocations” reached*

UK 5G rollout, January 2021

Note: * “Locations” refers to towns and cities with limited rollout, as provided by the operators. Given the infrastructure required, each MNO is first focusing on coverage in busy areas before expanding coverage further. Figures accurate as of late-January 2021.
Sources: Operators.





Three UK


Vodafone UK


Spectrum still to come

The expansion to O2’s 5G coverage comes ahead of the UK’s much-anticipated ‘5G-ready’ spectrum auction, scheduled for the first quarter of 2021 although seemingly facing delays. Initially expected early in the year, on 25 January 2021 UK regulator Ofcom confirmed the bidding would not begin until March 2021 at the earliest. The date set may yet slip further, with Ofcom saying it will “continue to monitor developments” regarding the ongoing pandemic as the year progresses. Each of the four MNOs is due to participate in the auction, which will sell off spectrum in the 700MHz and 3.6GHz–3.8GHz bands.

Beyond the UK, a number of other Telefónica markets are hosting spectrum auctions in the coming months. A precedent was set during 2020 for delays in auctions procedures, but plans are in place for the sales in three of the four “core markets”. Colombia is also expected to auction spectrum in late-2021.

MarketBandsExpected start of award procedure *

Telefónica spectrum agenda, 2021

Note: * Dates are tentative in light of ongoing pandemic.
Sources: regulators.


2.3GHz / 3.5GHz

H1 2021


700MHz / 1.9GHz / 2.5GHz

Q4 2021



Q1 2021


700MHz / 3.6GHz–3.8GHz

March 2021

Innovation in the wings, too

Besides expanding coverage, O2 UK also committed to partnering on another UK government-backed 5G trial, ProjectVista.

The project, led by television industry body Digital TV Group, aims to leverage 5G networks to provide live coverage of sporting events using “further-evolved multimedia broadcast& multicast service” (FeMBMS): a technology that takes a single stream and broadcasts it to multiple users, reducing bandwidth and processing requirements. It also enables the broadcast of multiple angles of an event, in high-definition, with interactive elements. The project will be actioned across three ‘phases’:

First, a trial at the Digital Catapult lab in London, followed by a demonstration at an O2-branded venue.

Pending the success of the previous two phases, a live sports event demonstration at O2-sponsored Twickenham. This third phase is tentatively scheduled for between November 2021 and February 2022.

ProjectVista is one of nine to be handed a share of £15.2m (€17.2m) from the UK government as part of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport’s (DCMS) £200m 5GTestbeds and Trials programme. This cohort is the second of the £28m 5GCreate call — the first of which was announced in mid-2020 (Telefónicawatch, #148).

Five of the projects — 5GAMC2, 5GLogistics, ConnectedCowes, EdenUniverse, and LiveandWild — will incorporate an element of open radio access network testing. This is expected to support the government’s 5GDiversification Strategy: a plan to increase vendor diversity in the wake of restrictions on the use of ‘high-risk vendors’ — principally, Huawei Technologies — which has resulted in over-reliance on Ericsson and Nokia in the UK’s infrastructure (BTwatch, #318).

ProjectFocusTelco participationKey participants(lead in bold)Funding *

5G Create second cohort

Source: DCMS.

MK5G (Milton Keynes 5G)

5G testing at Stadium MK to include trials of autonomous shuttles, robotics, and surveillance.


  • AppyWay
  • BT
  • CityFibre
  • Imperium Drive
  • Metaswitch Networks
  • Milton Keynes Council
  • MK Dons FC
  • Neutral Wireless


Eden Universe

Using augmented and virtual (AR/VR) to create enhanced experiences for Eden Project visitors and online.

  • aql
  • The Eden Project
  • Marshmallow Laser Feast
  • Meta


Connected Cowes

5G deployment in the Solent to enable real-time remote viewing and VR experiences during the Cowes Week racing event.

  • 1851 Trust
  • aql
  • Cowes Week


5G AMC 2 (Accelerate, Maximise and Create for Construction)

Testing 5G-enabled data management systems to maximise construction efficiencies.

  • AttoCore
  • BAM Nuttall
  • Building Research Establishment


Live and Wild

Testing 5G network resilience by leveraging 5G-enabled filming across the UK, reliant on a mobile, vehicle-mounted 5G base station.

  • aql
  • Candour Productions
  • MTN Safety


Project Vista (Video and Stadia Technical Architecture)

Live sporting event coverage based on FeMBMS broadcast to deliver to mobile devices.


  • Digital Catapult
  • Digital TV Group
  • Global Wireless Solutions
  • O2 UK
  • Rohde & Schwartz


The Green Planet AR

Creation of The Green Planet AR app, which will combine AR/VR and volumetric video to create an educational mobile experience.


  • BBC
  • Dimension Studios
  • EE
  • Factory 42
  • Royal Botanic Gardens Kew
  • Talesmith


5G Ports

Deployment of a 5G standalone network at Felixstowe port, to run alongside an existing Three UK 4G network. Automation, logistics, and predictive maintenance are among the use-cases.

Three UK

  • Blue Mesh Solutions
  • Cambridge University
  • Hutchison Ports
  • Three UK


5G Logistics

Security, traceability, and tracking of goods within extendable virtual boundaries, and between public and private networks.

  • ADVA
  • Airspan Communications
  • AttoCore
  • Bristol City Council
  • Bristol Port Company
  • Cellnex Connectivity Solutions
  • Davies Turner & Co
  • Maritime Transport
  • This is Gravity
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Cardiff
  • Unmanned Systems
  • West of England Combined Authority