3 UK to launch LTE in December with unlimited data plans

At long last, the UK market has joined the LTE big-leagues after 3 UK finally revealed its launch date and both O2 UK and Vodafone UK switched on their LTE services on Thursday.

In a blog post on Thursday, 3 UK announced that it would launch its LTE services in December, starting with London, Birmingham and Manchester. The Hutchison Whampoa-owned operator also confirmed that all-you-can-eat data will be available with its LTE plans, and that customers will not have to pay a premium for the high-speed services compared to 3G plans.

"Every Three customer with a 4G Ready device will get a 4G upgrade at no extra cost," the company said. "It'll be easy to switch over too; all that's required is a simple software update. You won't even need to go in to a store. There'll be no new contract to sign, no new SIM and no tariff change. We really want this transition to be as easy as possible for our customers."

3 UK also said it would roll out LTE services in a further 50 cities by the end of 2014, and is targeting 98 per cent population coverage by the end of 2015. As noted by an article in The Verge, Vodafone UK is also targeting 98 per cent population coverage by 2015, while EE is set to reach this goal by the end of 2014 and O2 in 2017.

Once dominated by EE, the UK LTE market can now be described as a competitive marketplace with a number of attractive offerings: "The exclusive content offered by O2 and Vodafone provides credible alternatives to EE in the fight for LTE customers in the UK," said CCS Insight in a research report on the UK LTE market.

3 UK's unlimited data offer will add a further interesting element to tempt consumers, but CCS Insight does not think this will spark a UK price war for LTE: "We expect instead to see a gradual introduction of more competitive packages," the research firm commented.

O2 and Vodafone are both putting the marketing focus on content, marking a new approach to the sale of mobile services. Vodafone has signed deals with Sky Sports Mobile TV and Spotify in order to offer inclusive sports and music content in its plans, while O2 is offering its own-brand O2 Tracks and Priority Sports services and has signed a deal with Gameloft to offer multiplayer games.

"The approach taken by Vodafone and O2 indicates that the initial battleground in the fight for LTE customers in the UK will revolve around content and network, rather than pricing," observed CCS Insight. "They and EE have elected to charge a premium as they look to recoup investments in spectrum and infrastructure, and there is little to choose between the tariffs."

Vodafone and O2, for example, both offer SIM-only deals that start at £26 a month, although Vodafone's plan includes 2 GB of data compared to O2's 1 GB. EE offers a cheaper entry-level £21 plan, but this includes only 500 MB of data.

For a UK consumer looking for the right LTE plan, much will depend on individual requirements. If data volume is the major issue and the user is not in a hurry, then waiting for 3 UK would be a good option given its unlimited plans. Any user with an urgent need for faster LTE speeds would need to choose one of the three existing offers, and EE has launched "double-speed" LTE using wider spectrum channels in 20 markets.

As summed up by The Verge: "If you want a decent amount of LTE data right now, your best option is probably O2. The Telefónica-owned network has coverage in 13 cities and offers competitive prices. If you're looking for either a tiny or a massive data allowance, EE is your best bet, with 500 MB for £21 and 20 GB for £61. Finally, if you're a Londoner, then Vodafone has an unmatchable 2 GB plan for £26."

Meanwhile, according to the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) the launches by O2 UK and Vodafone UK bring the worldwide total of commercial LTE networks to 204 in 77 countries. "Both operators are initially using 800 MHz spectrum (3GPP band 20) that each obtained by auction following the shift by TV broadcasters from analogue to digital transmissions," the GSA added. "The 800 MHz band is increasingly popular for LTE mobile broadband service, due to its long-range coverage capabilities and superior in-building performance."

For more:
- see this The Verge article
- see this 3 UK blog post
- see this GSA release

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