The UK may have been an LTE laggard so far, but its first major 4G operator, market leader EE, is already looking towards LTE-Advanced.
In the short term, the company – a joint venture between Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom – plans to double the speed and capacity of its new network, but it also wants to implement some of the features of LTE-Advanced (Release 10) once devices become available.
The largest UK cellco says its upgraded LTE network will increase top real world speeds to over 80 Mbps (it can do 130 Mbps in the lab), and double average speeds to more than 20 Mbps. EE will achieve this by doubling the spectrum capacity it is using, from 10 MHz to 20 MHz, as it continues to refarm its 1.8-GHz 2G frequencies.
Using this band enabled it to jump into the 4G market before rivals Vodafone, O2 and 3UK, which do not hold 1.8-GHz airwaves and only recently acquired LTE-suitable spectrum in the 2.6-GHz/800-MHz auction.
The new high speed EE services will initially be rolled out in 10 UK cities (Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Sheffield), having been trialled in Welsh capital Cardiff, and then will be expanded to cover the whole 4G footprint.
The upgrades will be available automatically to existing customers at no extra charge. EE, which was criticized for taking advantage of its market headstart by imposing high data charges, has now restructured its tariffs to address imminent competition and to hit its target of reaching one million 4G customers by the end of this year, which would be about 8% of its postpaid base, and to cover 98% of the population by the end of 2014. CEO Olaf Swantee said has taken the average LTE operator 24 months to reach 10% of their contract user base.
Its next step will be to harness a key feature of LTE-Advanced, carrier aggregation, later this year. This will add further capacity, and boost speeds beyond 100Mbps, by allowing EE to combine the different 4G frequencies it now holds since gaining new licences in the auction.
However, the firm is concerned that device availability is lagging behind operator interest in CA, a technology which has already been rolled out by a few cellcos such as SK Telecom, but with only a few supporting smartphones (or, in the case of some Asian carriers, heavily customized and therefore expensive models).
“It's a bit disappointing that the device ecosystem is not moving as fast as the network,” Mansoor Hanif, EE's director of network integration and LTE, told TotalTelecom. "I don't believe we will see many LTE-A devices this year.” However, he said the upgrade would go ahead all the same.
“We have an opportunity to be one of the first operators in the world to roll out carrier aggregation,” he said, adding that EE would work with fellow LTE-A supporters such as NTT Docomo to drive the device ecosystem.
Most LTE devices still have Category 3 modems, but Cat 4 is required to connect to LTE-A. Huawei did unveil a Cat 4 smartphone, Ascend P2, this year and will be looking for a useful in-road into early LTE-A movers.
One of these is SK Telecom of South Korea, which has been outlining its LTE-A plans for some months and has implemented some features including CA already in selected sites. It announced last week that it will make a broader LTE-A roll-out from September, doubling data speeds for most 4G subscribers.
It said that, for the first time, it will offer higher speeds on its cellular network than on optical LANs (43 seconds to download an 800MB file, compared to 64 seconds on optical LAN, the cellco said).
Back in the UK, Matthew Howett, telecoms analyst at research firm Ovum, believes EE‟s plans will enable it to build on the headstart it gained by deploying in 1.8-GHz, rather than being pushed back to a level playing field once Vodafone and O2 roll out in earnest.
“Given EE's large and contiguous holding of spectrum at 1.8GHz, this puts them in a very strong position and makes it more difficult for their peers to play catch-up once they launch networks in the coming weeks and months,” he wrote. “There are other players in the market that do not have the spectrum capacity to do this today, or in the future.”
Meanwhile, as the tide of operator criticism of Apple‟s LTE policies rises, EE has emerged as a defender. The company was dealt a good hand at the launch of the iPhone 5, which supports only selected LTE frequencies – including EE‟s 1.8GHz, but not its rivals' 2.6GHz and 800MHz. EE has returned the favor, saying that Apple's policy of testing a carrier's 4G network performance before allowing the iPhone 5 to be used with LTE, is correct.
Swantee said at the conference to introduce the new data speeds that the policy is good for consumers and the industry. “We work very closely with Apple and other manufacturers to ensure the device experience is right, because we agree with Apple,” he said.
“You really need to make sure, as we move away from pure voice and text, that the mobile internet experience is good and solid. We have seen many 4G operators that are not announcing the leading 4G handsets on their network because their 4G network does not support a good customer experience, so we absolutely support Apple's policy.”
EE wants to differentiate itself by the quality of its network, not just its headline speeds, and claims not every LTE experience is equal, and that some cellcos may be rushing their deployments without paying sufficient attention to testing and reliability.
He even called on other handset partners, such as Samsung and HTC, to adopt similar methods to Apple's. He told Telecoms.com: “Samsung and HTC are key partners of ours but you can't just get a device that the manufacturer says is 4G-ready and offer it as a 4G handset on your network. That's why we are so surprised when we see some of our competitors claiming they have a 4G-ready device when they don't even have a 4G network. I have seen how many hours and how many engineers are required to make a 4G device work properly on a 4G network. This is not easy stuff.”