Posts tagged ‘1800’

Planning ahead for LTE from a spectrum perspective

This post is by Scott McKenzie, Director, Coleago Consulting Limited.

This post is by Scott McKenzie, Director, Coleago Consulting Limited.

With mobile data currently growing globally at anything up to 70 per cent per annum (see diagram) , operators need to get more capacity out of their networks to successfully compete in an increasingly data centric world where customer expectations are rising. In the markets where 4G mobile data has taken off rapidly, speed has generally been one of the main marketing messages used to sell the service. Low capacity will increasingly lead to a poor customer experience and create opportunities for rivals with less congested networks. As we move into the data world we therefore believe that network quality (both capacity and coverage) will remain an important differentiator for operators wanting to avoid competing on price only.

Clearly LTE (with wide carrier bandwidths) offers significant advantages versus HSPA, such as higher user data speeds and reduced latency while offering the operator much lower cost capacity and higher network efficiency. However these benefits can only be realised if the operator has the right spectrum holdings to exploit these advantages in the first place.

Although it is very situation dependent, from working on numerous LTE and spectrum projects around the world, we believe that the best way that an existing operator can ensure it has a competitive network position is to secure a small number of wide LTE carriers; fragmented holdings should be avoided wherever possible. Also a good mix of high and low band spectrum is required to ensure that there is sufficient capacity and coverage in the network. Ideally an operator should aim for at least 2x10MHz of sub 1GHz spectrum for coverage (rural and in building), while for capacity one or more carriers of 2x20MHz at higher frequencies (preferably 1800 MHz) ought to be the target. Operators need to consider if they can re-farm spectrum to get some advantage.

Source: Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012–2017

Source: Cisco Visual Networking Index: Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update, 2012–2017

Failure to secure the ideal spectrum holdings does not however, mean that an operator is in a hopeless position, but it will certainly make life much harder.

There are various fall back strategies that an operator can pursue to overcome fragmented holdings. First of all, LTE-Advanced technology will in the future enable spectrum holdings to be aggregated, but this is not a fix that operators can rely on in the short term given that it will take time to come to market on both the infrastructure and device side. In theory spectrum trading, swapping or sharing may be permissible in many markets but again this is not a silver bullet as spectrum trades usually involve intense negotiations between rivals who will not give anything away cheaply to help a competitor. In addition, such transactions usually need the approval of competition authorities, which can be lengthy processes with a far from guaranteed outcome. There may also be significant transaction costs – for example, any profits will be subject to capital gains taxes.

One final issue that operators need to consider carefully when determining their preferred LTE spectrum holdings, is that they should always aim to secure spectrum that is aligned with standardised regional bands. This means that, they will have access to as wide a range of devices as possible which will also be vital from a commercial point of view as many consumers make their handset choice before selecting their operator.

Double trouble – How EE is able to double its speeds and why it isn’t entirely good news

olafThis 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.

EE bah gum: it’s fast! – EE LTE on test

ee_iPhone

As my day job involves writing about LTE on a pretty regular basis (as in every day) I always found it quite ironic that up until recently I’d never experienced an LTE network ‘in anger’. Come October last year and UK operator EE changed all of that. It’s taken a while but I’ve finally succumbed to the temptation and signed up to the service. This means I’ve done the full tour of UK operators. I started with T-Mobile in 1998 when it was still One-to-One, later moved to Vodafone (just for 3G – yes really), before moving to O2 (cheap). It means Orange is the only brand I’ve not been billed by, but I am at least now using its network.

Today the UK operator EE released its first figures since the operator launched its LTE network, and analysts have been fairly downcast on the figures, which show a decline in revenue of 2.6 per cent to £5.96bn. There have been an increase in post-paid subscribers to the service, the EE network includes the Orange and T-Mobile brands, which are 3G only. As EE has not released figures for the number of its new 4G EE customers there’s no way of knowing to what extent LTE has helped. The assumption from analysts though is that if EE has something to crow about, it would be doing so.

So what’s keeping the punters away? The only conclusion can be price. As you might have heard, there’s a double-dip recession on, which is not the ideal environment to get consumers to pay more for faster speeds, especially when they are as heavily capped as EE. Remember the entry-level cap only gives you 500MBs to play with and though the price has dropped to £31, it’s still pricey. To get a decent 3GB on a two-year contract with an iPhone 5 will cost you £46 a month with £99 for the phone.

But is it worth it?

The one thing I can confirm is that it’s fast. In areas of good coverage, which fortunately for me includes both work and home, LTE on an iPhone 5 delivers speeds that consistently put my Virgin broadband 60Mb connection to shame. Speeds of 30Mbps on the downlink and in excess of 20Mb on the uplink are a breathe of fresh air, especially coming from O2’s 3G network which at least for me, was pretty dire, rarely delivering more than 1.5Mbps.

What surprised me was how much difference it made even for the simple things, such as sending iMessages. The progress bar on messages just zips across, making for more natural conversations. Adding a picture to an iMessage used to mean a long wait while the message was painfully uploaded. Now, they go so quickly that the first time I had to check it had actually been sent and hadn’t just failed. All that upload speed is great for sending or posting pictures and videos, which is what more and more of us are doing from our smartphones.

A lovely was to demonstrate LTE is YouTube. It just loads up and starts to play immediately, with no buffering. Suddenly the speed of your device and not the network is the limit. This was brought home to me just today. I was on the train, and had need to watch a YouTube video. Immediately I did so and for once I was not thinking about latency or cell towers, – just the video. This all changed as the video suddenly stopped. I checked and noted that I was at a stop that I knew was an LTE blackspot (West Hampstead Station). 3G was displayed on the phone, but the speed wasn’t there. Result: experience spoilt.

This does seem to be a problem for EE. Even in the West-End of London I’ll see LTE come and go, and while DC-HSPA 3G is fast, I’ve also seen standard 3G, EDGE and GPRS, which means that your handset might well have to cope with switching between five different network standards during the day. No wonder these smartphones struggle for battery life.

If you have to fall back to DC-HSPA though performance is good. In a recent interview with EE’s Principal network architect, Andy Sutton, I was told that as part of its upgrade programme EE also currently has 40 per cent coverage of DC-HSPA on its network, and I can attest to this being pretty solid. However, ubiquitous coverage of either LTE of DC HPSA is still a long way away and clearly improvements can be made in the hand-off between network technologies.

LTE is not just great for video though. Being something of an audio aficionado I enjoy listening to high quality audio when I can. LTE enables me to stream by 24-bit FLAC files to my handset from NAS box at home, with no issues at all, something that was simply impossible on 3G.

As a downside, listening to high quality files on an LTE connection is also a great way for draining your battery, so necessitated purchasing a charging cable for work and plugging in on a regular basis.

I’ve also used LTE as a backup connection at home, when my Virgin connection has ground to a halt, as it sometimes does. This is thanks to the ability to very easily tether via the iPhone 5 hot-spot feature. This was banned by GiffGaff, the O2 MVNO I used to be on, a point of frustration when there was unlimited data to play with.

In my first month I’ve come just under the 3GB limit, which is clearly the sweet spot for me – enough to use the LTE as I want, without having to worry I’ll go over the cap.

What’s also gratifying is the speed at which EE is rolling out the network. At launch it was just 11 cities, and just four months later it stands at 27 cities – with 15 more by the end of next month.

And while I didn’t come to EE because of the value added services I have made use of the bundled wifi, which gives access to BT Wifi hotspots, the ‘EE Wednesday’s Cinema 2-4-1 offer, and the EE Film store, with a free film a week available to download that doesn’t eat into your data package to download.

To be critical, the EE app has just got very confused about my data usage, telling me I’ve used only 800Mb of my 3GB, when yesterday I had almost used it all up. The web site also had no record of my data usage. I also wouldn’t recommend roaming without a pre-pay bundle – the prices are simply eye-watering. Digital Commissioner Neelie Kroes has been working on forcing operators to lower these charges, and for me that can’t come soon enough.

The Clone Phone Lite app also seems pointless. It’s redundant for an iPhone thanks for iCloud, it only comes with a 500MB cap and when I tried to test the app it didn’t recognise my phone anyway.

Overall though, the combination of very fast network speeds and some actually useful value added services, I’d describe the whole EE experience as the most premium feeling package I’ve ever used. Which considering the premium prices is as it should be.

It remains to be seen then how it pans out. I’m relieved that being lucky enough to have an unlocked iPhone 5 without a contract I was able to go for a SIM-only package. This means that I’m only tied in for 12 months – not 24 and come next year they’ll be a pick of other operators offering LTE – (though of course as the iPhone 5 is LTE1800 only I’ll need a new handset to take advantage of them). If I stay, I expect that EE’s packages will be more enticing to the mass market.

So EE: it is expensive, and it can be patchy but as a teacher once described my contribution in class – “when it’s there – it’s really there.”

4G in the UK: Timelines settled, now fight for the customers

This is a guest post by Francesco Radicati, an analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media, provider of strategic insight, global market data and primary research.

The UK’s 4G saga may have reached its climax in August with Everything Everywhere receiving permission to launch its own LTE network early, but the story isn’t over yet. UK regulator Ofcom announced yesterday that it would move forward the auction for the Digital Dividend creating by switching off analogue TV, and that clearance of TV transmitters will be brought forward by around five months.

This is a clear concession to O2 and Vodafone, who were the most vocal in criticizing the decision to let EE launch 4G on its 1800MHz spectrum. Given the uncertainty over dates and the long lead times, both operators faced potential waits of around a year to launch their own 4G networks. Add to that the fact that Apple’s new iPhone 5, which hit the market just a few weeks after Ofcom’s announcement, only supports LTE over the 1800MHz frequency in the UK; this might not be an operator’s worst nightmare, but it must certainly be high on the list.

As I said back in August, the danger remained of O2 and Vodafone mounting a legal challenge to stop EE being able to launch its 4G network. But it looks like we’ve avoided that particular nuclear option, which would have caused even more delays; more to the point, it looks like everybody’s (just about) gotten what they wanted.

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