This morning EE, the only national LTE operator in the UK announced that come the summer, it would be doubling speeds of its 1800MHz LTE network for its subscribers. The increase offers a maximum headline speed of 130Mbps, which in the real world would translate to average speeds of 20Mps. The increase will initially be available in ten cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Sheffield – and would be done by the end of June.
How is this possible? At the launch CEO Olaf Swantee explained that it was doubling the bandwidth it would be using from 2x 10MHz to 2x 20MHz.
EE has loads of spectrum to play with. In the recent auction, in addition to its considerable 45Mhz at 1800 (63% of all UK 1800 holdings) it has also acquired 5MHz of 800 spectrum and 35MHz at 2.6GHz. It therefore owns 36% of all UK spectrum.
Not though that the increase will only happen on the 1800MHz layer. It certainly won’t offer it on 800MHz as it won’t offer that same level of speed as EE simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to support it.
As its UK competitors start to ready themselves to launch LTE, for EE the move is timely, as it gives them another strong point of differentiation. In fact they could be crying into their base stations. Vodafone owns the next largest chunk of spectrum with 20MHz of 2.6GHz while H3G tops out at 15MHz of 1800.
Did EE hold back the launch then just got marketing reasons? Not so, says Monsoor Hanif, director of network integration and LTE at EE who I spoke to after the launch I spoke to and he assured me that the speed increase was always in its schedule and that it did not depend of the success at auction.
However, on a technical level it was not ready to launch at 2x 20MHz he said. Its 1800 spectrum has of course been used for voice and according to Hanif the delay was to ensure it managed that transition to 4G smoothly without affecting the quality of its voice calls. “To take away 10MHz from your 2G spectrum, that’s a massive challenge and we did that very fast. And we didn’t impact the 2G quality – we actually improved it. Could we have done it at day one? Only if we were reckless.”
The major fly in the EE ointment though is that if people were complaining about the paucity of its data bundles at launch, it’s going to be even worse come the summer when those in the ten launch cities will be able to chow their way through their allowances at even more astonishing speeds.
I asked this directly to Olaf Swantee but his answer essentially side-stepped the question. He said that its T-Mobile customers on its unlimited Full Monty tariff average out at 1.4GB for heavy users. But in the previous sentence he also said that 4G users user more than 3G users.
So if you’re increasing your speeds, why not increase the bundles?
People like the simplicity Swantee said. “They like the fact that it’s a simple portfolio. You cannot get data bill shock as you can’t run out of our bundle.” Well that’s true, but it doesn’t really address the issue.
In the notes supplied with the event EE says the increased speeds will enable it to be ready to stream Ultra HD 4K movies – the next generation beyond Full HD 1080p. However, how it can square this with its modest data bundles is beyond me – as while the network may certainly be fast enough to handle it – most people’s wallets certainly won’t.
Swantee also said that the overall bundle appeals to many – the Film Store, the 2-for-1 cinema deals and the tethering. It’s true, all of those things are great value-adds, but there’s no getting away from the fact that price wise EE LTE remains a premium proposition.