BT has pledged to expand 5G mobile services to cover almost all of the UK within seven years, despite a government ban on major equipment supplier Huawei.
The telecoms group said that by 2028, its EE 5G mobile network would cover 90 per cent of the UK landmass and that it would add 4,500 square miles to its rural coverage map by 2025.
BT customers in the most remote 10 per cent of the country, places where it is difficult to install telecoms towers, will be able to connect to 5G via drones or satellite-based services provided by OneWeb, the government-backed operator, at a cost.
The new targets were announced weeks after Virgin Media and O2 sealed a merger that threw down the gauntlet to BT with a move to spend £10bn on broadband and 5G expansion over the next five years.
It is also the first significant BT plan for next-generation mobile services since the government banned the use of new 5G equipment made by Huawei last year.
The ban, a government U-turn after the industry was initially told it could launch 5G with a limited amount of Huawei kit, has triggered a huge swap-out plan. BT, which used large amounts of Huawei equipment for 4G services, expects the ban to cost it about £500m.
Marc Allera, chief executive of BT Consumer, said that the UK telecoms industry had been dominated by the debate about full-fibre optic broadband, while having to face up to the Huawei ban and misplaced health worries about 5G, which led to masts being set alight in Britain.
However, the need for 5G would become apparent as people returned to the office and started travelling again, he said. “The full-fibre experience you get at home is what you will want when you are travelling. That really needs 5G.”
EE launched 5G services in 2019 before the Huawei ban and its network now covers 40 per cent of the UK population, according to a person with direct knowledge of the situation. This will rise to about 50 per cent by early 2023.
The new targets do not change BT’s existing forecasts for capital spending, which is set to peak at £5bn a year.
BT also said it would turn off its legacy 3G services within two years. 3G was launched to great industry fanfare almost 20 years ago but proved a burden on the UK sector, which spent a combined £22.5bn to buy the spectrum — the airwaves that carry mobile signals — to launch 3G but for lower than expected returns.
Only 2 per cent of EE’s data is now carried over 3G networks and the company wants to reuse the spectrum for 5G and save costs by turning off the old network. That will mean millions of customers that still have 3G phones will need to upgrade by 2023.