Mallinson: Consumer interests should trump fairness in UK LTE launch

Keith Mallinson

The UK's Everything Everywhere, recently rebranded as EE, was apparently handed a massive tactical advantage over rival operators by being permitted to refarm its 2G 1800 MHz spectrum for 4G use with LTE. An imminent service launch was expected. However, once again, consumer interests are being subordinated with the threat of legal challenges by rival operators to block EE, and with a one-month stand-still agreement for talks on how all operators can proceed with LTE that was brokered by the government. Yet another interruption after so many delays is very troubling. The UK is already nearly three years behind LTE frontrunners and cannot afford any more postponements.

Elsewhere LTE is the fastest mobile deployment ever. Already 96 operators have launched commercial LTE services in 46 countries. Also, according to the GSA, LTE in the 1800 MHz band is now employed in one-third of all commercial LTE networks. Thirty-two operators, compared to only five one year ago, have launched 1800 MHz LTE commercially, either as a single band system, or as part of a multi-band deployment.  Commercial 1800 MHz LTE services are now available in 24 countries: Angola, Australia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Mauritius, Namibia, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Korea, and the UAE.

4G still coming soon to the UK

Refarming 1800 MHz from GSM use to LTE could give EE a one-year head start over those relying on the upcoming UK auctions for spectrum in the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands. EE is all set with 1800 MHz LTE network equipment for a service launch within about one month, and this would coincide nicely with availability of the new, LTE-ready, iPhone 5. As explained in some of my previous FierceWireless:Europe columns (here, here and here), it will be toward the end of 2013 before these yet-to-be-auctioned frequencies can be deployed due to various practicalities, problems and delays in setting auction rules and clearing frequencies. With Apple's iPhone 5 supporting LTE at 1800 MHz and not at these other frequencies, it could be even longer before Vodafone and O2 UK are able to offer an iPhone using LTE on their networks. 

Vodafone and O2 might be able to get away with ticking the "4G" box, for marketing and legal purposes, by also refarming their small 1800 MHz spectrum holdings, but they would not be able to exploit LTE efficiently and significantly with the large spectrum blocks the technology needs to exceed the 3G performance already available with HSPA+ technology. These two operators have only 2 x 5.8 MHz channels apiece versus 2 x 45 MHz for EE in the 1800 MHz band. LTE needs at least 10 MHz--and ideally 20 MHz or more--spectrum blocks to provide the improved speed and capacity that justify the 4G moniker. These operators would rather prioritise large-scale LTE deployment in the new frequencies over refarming a slither of tied-up frequencies. But that is a matter for them. There is no good reason to delay LTE availability to consumers who deserve to have best performance and services with widest choice as soon as possible.

Lies, damned lies, statistics and headline network speeds

The inevitable smartphone connection speed test conducted by the BBC's technology correspondent at EE's 4G mobile broadband launch showed 4G (on an unloaded LTE test network) almost off the scale at around 33 Mbps in comparison to sluggish 4-5 Mbps on a loaded commercial 3G network. Such demos help make lovely news sound bites, and these are generating a phenomenal marketing boost for EE in its ascendancy to 4G market leadership. The first-mover advantage will be immensely valuable, particularly if EE's major two competitors cannot match its offerings for a year or more. Very high relative speeds are rarely sustainable once mass-adoption by the heavy users who are most interested in next-generation mobile kicks in, but mitigating congestion is a nice problem to have when one is attracting the least price-sensitive early adopters.

Next-generation network deployments are urgently needed from all operators to increase overall capacity as well as speeds. While EE should not be held back in launching LTE, all impediments must be removed to ensure all other operators can also do so as soon as possible. 4G is not just about headline speeds and pandering to the demands of those who would like to have the fastest devices soonest. After all the latest 3G technologies including HSPA+ can also provide headline speeds in excess of 40 Mbps. Next-generation technologies, including HSPA enhancements, LTE and LTE Advanced are mostly needed to help multiply capacity 1,000-fold in combination with increasing cell site density and with as much additional spectrum as possible.

Keith Mallinson is a leading industry expert, analyst and consultant. Solving business problems in wireless and mobile communications, he founded consulting firm WiseHarbor in 2007. WiseHarbor publishes an Extended Mobile Broadband Forecast. This includes network equipment, devices and carrier services to 2025. Further details are available at: Find WiseHarbor on Twitter @WiseHarbor.