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.”