- How do you solve a problem like 5G tariffs?
- Vodafone has a cunning plan (or three)
- But will the rest of the UK’s mobile players follow?
Vodafone UK has made a bold move to stand out in what’s now a crowded 4G to 5G transition market as it switched on the first phase of its UK 5G network this week.
All four UK operators are talking 5G and promising to add cities to their total as fast as they can through the summer and autumn this year. But that on its own is not a terribly compelling approach for users if the potential subscriber doesn’t happen to live in one of the cities on the operators’ immediate hit lists.
So instead of a limp lettuce leaf set of city add schedules and lots of general 5G guff (which most tech consumers are probably fed up to the back teeth hearing about by now), Vodafone today announced some real tariffing innovation which it hopes will set it apart. Oh, and there’s the promise of some non-standalone 5G access as and when the roll-out gathers pace.
Here’s the deal
Vodafone is offering three ‘unlimited’ speed tiers which will operate over both 4G and 5G connections. They are 2Mbit/s, 10Mbit/s and then whatever the network can allow - presumably up to tens of Mbit/s.
The new plans are available immediately for SIM-only and ‘5G ready’ smartphones. The attraction is that the user gets the benefit of unlimited data straight away using 4G and then the phone will automatically switch to 5G if it hoves into view as Vodafone “rolls out” more bits of the UK to 5G over time.
The implicit admission here, though, is that there is no pretense of a huge “5G changes everything” gap between speedy LTE and non-standalone 5G, not when you’re dealing with speed tiers. The difference is that the capacity increase will enable the operator to progressively accommodate the three unlimited speed tiers as more users take the new tariffs (if they do).
But in fact this is how it should be as the old ‘data buckets’ model was looking unfit for purpose as video streaming increased: After all it’s not total data usage, but users’ data demand through the busy periods that tends to be the limiting factor as far as the network is concerned, so speed tiers are inevitably the best way to go for both operators and users (at least in theory).
So, the Vodafone tiers are:
Vodafone Unlimited Lite: Aimed at relatively undemanding users who want to chat on social apps, browse the internet and stream music, this service costs £23 per month and offers speeds of up to 2 Mbps.
Vodafone Unlimited: Costing £26 per month and offering speeds of up to 10 Mbps, it is ideal for customers who want to video stream over SD or HD without worrying about their data usage.
Vodafone Unlimited Max: At £30 per month, it gives users unlimited mobile access at speeds as fast as the device and the network will allow. It is perfect for people who want to take advantage of the latest technology, such as live virtual reality, watching live TV and sport in 4K with ultra-high definition (HD), real-time multiplayer gaming on the go or downloading boxsets in super quick time. (claims Vodafone)
At first sight these are very tightly spaced. For an extra £3 per month I suspect many people who go to the trouble of buying an expensive smartphone will go for ‘Unlimited’ and those with a yen to tether to a big screen device in the home, or those who like to up- and download big files, will go for Unlimited Max. A paltry 2Mbit/s unlimited lite for £23 seems out of whack, although it’s not clear if congestion will result in throttling each tier on a proportionate basis or whether the 2Mbit/s will be left alone.
Still, that could be a sign of 'old world thinking' on my part - we probably need to forget the headline speeds and concentrate on the performance of the applications running in each tier.
As far as devices are concerned, Vodafone is pushing a 5G-ready Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and a Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 5G available with unlimited data now.
But if the user doesn’t (yet) have a 5G ready smartphone, late model “4G handsets from big brands including Apple and Samsung also come with unlimited plans.”
Vodafone is also offering Amazon Prime Video, Spotify Premium, Now TV Entertainment Pass or Sky Sports Mobile TV for just £6 per month.
While Vodafone’s speed-tiered unlimited data tariffs look like being a first for the UK, they may not be an ‘only’ for very long. The other networks will be watching closely to understand how new capacity and unlimited tiering might work together to build market share (in Vodafone’s case, as the network has fallen back to third place over recent years) and, of course, 5G monetisation and add-on services. Will 5G (even the relatively mild non-standalone version) upend the market and lead to continuous price warfare, or is it capable assisting in the task of convincing users to pay more for their data services?
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