LTE networks prove to be a bit like buses, as two arrive at once

Weary users of public transport in the UK have long attested to the veracity of the statement that you can wait an hour for a bus, only for two or more to arrive at once. You then risk not getting on any of them because they are all full of equally late and irate commuters. Or, rendered immobile by an agony of indecision over which bus to board, you miss all three.

In fact it's a bit like LTE. UK consumers have been waiting months for an LTE rival to come along and wipe the smug smile off EE's face, and now it seems they will have as many as two more to choose from as of Aug. 29--although just London residents look set to be the first main beneficiaries of this embarrassment of riches.

Both O2 UK and Vodafone UK--which have an LTE network-sharing venture called CTI--said they will offer services starting on this date, and both have the same entry-level price for SIM-only contracts of £26. This is actually more than the lowest offer from EE, which offers a 12-month SIM-only deal for £21, although that plan only includes 500 MB of data.

However, differentiating their plans from EE is going to be a tough proposition for O2, Vodafone and 3 UK because of EE's rather large head start. The operator, owned by Orange and Deutsche Telekom, has had plenty of time to polish up its LTE plans and now offers shared Internet plans, speeds that are double what they were initially in some LTE markets and a wide range of smartphone and tablet tariffs, including SIM-only and contract deals with inclusive extras such as EE Film, unlimited Wi-Fi and Clone Phone.

O2 UK has so far provided little detail, other than to say that services would initially be launched in London, Leeds and Bradford on Aug. 29 and would cover up to 5 million people at launch.

Vodafone was quick to follow with its own launch announcement, and provided a lot more detail on how it plans to differentiate itself from EE. A key strategy will be the partnerships it has formed with Sky Sports and Spotify in order to offer inclusive sports or music content in 24-month plans. Will this be enough to persuade existing users to pay a £5 premium in order to gain access to LTE, or tempt users to opt for Vodafone over EE?

Ovum analyst Emeka Obiodu noted that Vodafone's announcement is "remarkable" because it has focused on the tariff and content deals rather than speed or coverage.

"In a way, this undersells Vodafone's strength given its 800 MHz spectrum holdings and the improved in-door coverage this band offers," Obiodu noted.

At the same time, he said there is a sense that Vodafone wants to avoid the 3G lesson "where it worked so hard to create the best 3G network, yet lost out as rivals, especially O2, delivered a better appealing proposition to customers."

"Ultimately, this focus on business model innovation--tariff (including doubling the data package) and the content deals--is a more assured way of convincing customers to spend the additional £5/month," he added.

3 UK is set to follow with its own LTE announcement later this year, and is expected to differentiate its plans by continuing to offer unlimited data and charging no premium for LTE. O2 UK and Vodafone have maintained data caps for their plans, with Vodafone citing up to 8 GB, while EE now offers 20 GB for £51 a month.

Whatever the outcome will be, it is encouraging to see more LTE rollouts in Europe; Vodafone has also just launched its services in the Netherlands, and is also now championing speeds of up to 150 Mbps in Germany.

Let the battle commence!--Anne

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