EE aims to boost 4G speeds as UK rivals prep LTE networks

EE intends to sign up more than 1 million subscribers to its LTE network by the end of this year, as the UK mobile operator makes the most of its diminishing lead on rival operators by also promising to double average LTE speeds to 20 Mbps.

EE has enjoyed a massive head start with LTE services in the UK by using its refarmed 1800 MHz spectrum for LTE, but Vodafone and Telefónica's O2 UK have said they will launch LTE services later this year after both operators acquired spectrum in the recent auction in the UK. EE now has to step up momentum to counter rumours of weak adoption, amid criticism that its "4GEE" plans have been priced too high.

EE said it will boost headline LTE speeds to 80 Mbps (with lab speeds of 130 Mbps) and double current average speeds to 20 Mbps in 10 cities by the summer. The operator, which is also the parent company of Orange UK and T-Mobile UK, said such measures to increase speed and capacity are necessary as it forecasts that mobile data traffic will grow by as much as 750 per cent in the next three years alone. In the recent UK LTE auction, EE also acquired spectrum in the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands that it is now using to support the existing 1800 MHz network.

"Since we launched 4G, we've seen a huge shift in the way people are using mobile," EE CEO Olaf Swantee said in a statement. "Video already accounts for 24 per cent of all traffic on our 4G network – that's significantly more than on 3G. Maps, mobile commerce, sat-nav tools and cloud services are all seeing a similar rise."

EE also said it is aiming to trial carrier aggregation, a fundamental feature of LTE Advanced, by the end of 2013. This technology combines spectrum from different bands to further boost performance, speed and capacity. "Through this innovative use of spectrum assets, EE will be able to deliver more 4G bandwidth than any other operator in the UK is able to, now and in the future," the operator claimed.

"EE [has] confidently targeted 1 million 4G users by the end of the year," Ovum analyst Matthew Howett wrote in a research note. "With six months already under their belt, but eight months still to go, they are perhaps just under half the way there--a number that is probably more than most had expected at this stage."

3 UK has also recently stepped up the pressure on EE by rebranding its network "ultrafast" and saying that its DC-HSDPA network is already reaching peak speeds of more than 20 Mbps. The Hutchison-owned operator dug the boot in further by adding that it would not charge extra for LTE services when the technology is added later this year: "Unlike some other UK mobile operators, [LTE] will be available across all existing and new price plans without customers needing to pay a premium fee to 'upgrade'," the operator said in February.

According to Ovum's Howett, the UK now looks set to shake off its image as a slow mover with LTE as the various operators step up their game.

"Not so long ago, it looked like Britain would be condemned to the slow lane for years to come," he said. "However in just six months, over half the UK has now been covered with 4G LTE with a rollout that's continuing at pace. While EE certainly hasn't taken its head start for granted, the real test will come once Vodafone, O2 and Three launch 4G LTE networks of their own after winning spectrum in the recent 4G auction--a moment that is now just a matter of weeks away."

For more:
- see this EE release
- see this Reuters article
- see this Bloomberg article

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