EE kicks off Cat 9 LTE battle in the UK

EE CEO Marc Allera
EE CEO Marc Allera

EE has become the first operator in the UK to announce that it will support Category 9 (Cat 9) capabilities on its LTE Advanced network, enabling download speeds of up to 360 Mbps on the HTC M10 smartphone with a theoretical maximum speed of 450 Mbps.

The BT-owned operator, which was also the first to launch 4G services in the UK, has thus scored another point over its three rivals, which have yet to formally announce support for Cat 9 speeds on their 4G networks.

However, EE is not offering the new capability nationwide at present. In fact Cat 9 has so far only been activated in Wembley Stadium, and will gradually be rolled out to other sites in London this year. Birmingham and Manchester will follow in 2016 and 2017.

Essentially, Cat 9 speeds are enabled on 4G networks through three-carrier aggregation (3CA), where operators use three blocks of spectrum in order to boost data download and upload speeds. EE is using one block of 1800 MHz and two blocks of 2.6 GHz spectrum for the new service.

EE and Vodafone UK have already launched Cat 6 or two-carrier aggregation (2CA). Vodafone UK has also tested 3CA on sites in London with Ericsson, achieving download speeds of up to 240 Mbps by combining 800 MHz, 1.8 GHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum and claiming that speeds could reach up to 700 Mbps.

A Vodafone UK spokesperson told FierceWireless:Europe that the operator was deploying “both two-way and three-way carrier aggregation” in major UK cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, London, Liverpool and Manchester.

“We continually investigate and deploy the latest technologies to ensure that our customers get the best network experience throughout the UK. This includes the rollout of 4G+ (carrier aggregation) using combinations of 800 MHz, 1800 MHz, 2100 MHz and 2.6 GHz spectrum bands,” the spokesperson added.

O2 UK is also starting to roll out 2CA: 

“After successfully deploying LTE on 1800 MHz in the Channel Tunnel, we are rolling out LTE at 1800 MHz across the UK, carrier aggregating both 800 and 1800 together. We have no immediate plans at the moment around 3CA,” a spokesperson said.

As noted by EE CEO Marc Allera, mobile operators are now being pushed to improve the capability of their 4G networks by the growing availability of Cat 9 devices.

“There’s no point having the latest smartphones on a network that can’t support the top speeds the device is capable of,” Allera said.

Ben Wood of CCS Insight made a similar point in a research note ahead of the expected launch of the iPhone 7 later on Wednesday. He noted that a number of premium devices including the HTC M10, Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge, and the rumoured iPhone 7 all support Cat 9 but many networks still do not.

“Of course, over time, all networks will eventually upgrade the technology if they have the necessary spectrum assets and appetite for investment. But savvy smartphone buyers would be well advised to carefully check exactly what network capabilities their operator offers when choosing the airtime they want to use on their expensive new smartphone,” Wood said.

In fact Cat 9 support is still fairly rare across the globe, according to the latest update from the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA). In its August update, the association said a total of 147 LTE-A carrier aggregation networks had been commercially launched globally, of which 103 were in the Cat 6 category and 17 in Cat 9. Five operators -- Telstra, DNA in Finland, SK Telecom, Vodafone Spain and AIS in Thailand -- have also deployed Cat 11, which supports download speeds of up to 600 Mbps.

In Europe, the GSA said operators with Cat 9 support include T-Mobile Czech Republic; TDC in Denmark; SFR in France; Vodafone Germany; Cosmote in Greece; Tele2 in Latvia; Omnitel in Lithuania and Orange Romania.

The number of Cat 9 and Cat 6 devices is growing: in early August, the GSA said there were 40 Cat 9 devices on the market and 285 with Cat 6 speeds.

For more:
- see the EE release

Related articles:
Telefónica confirms IPO as one option on table for O2 UK
EE to offer free Apple Music in a UK first
EE adds inclusive roaming and BT Sport to new monthly plans
BT Mobile launches new mobile phone contracts, insists EE brand is to stay
EE pledges to extend 4G coverage to 95% of UK landmass by 2020