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UK telco EE claims world’s fastest network (in a small corner of London…)

We mentioned in yesterday’s news that demand for LTE-Advanced, the next evolution of 4G technology, is picking up. ABI Research say that there have now been 29 LTE-Advanced network commitments, of which 10 come from Western Europe, 9 from Asia-Pacific, and 5 from North America.

Here in the UK, we’re still getting used to 3G,never mind 4G. But that’s not stopping EE from rolling out network upgrades to a maximum 300Mbit/s. Mind you, this ultra-fast network only covers a square mile or so in London’s Tech City, and it appears to being offered to companies on an invitation-only basis, although the plan is to roll it out wider.

EE – the joint 4G brand of Orange and T-Mobile – currently claims 60 per cent population coverage for its LTE network, with plans to cover 98 per cent of the population by 2014. It got off to a flying start (by UK standards…) by launching in October 2012, thanks to a legal ruling by Ofcom that it could use its re-farmed 3G 1800MHz spectrum for new 4G services, rather than waiting for the official auction of new 4G spectrum.

Rivals O2, Vodafone and 3 were left crying on the sidelines, but have now got their spectrum sorted out and are marketing 4G services. So it’s not surprising that EE has upped the game and used its time to market advantage start early network upgrades.

The problem is though, is the UK population convinced that LTE – let alone LTE-Advanced – is worth the extra money? There is certainly no clamour to buy into the faster service just yet, and if operators don’t loosen up on their data limits then there may never be a surge in demand.

EE predicts data usage will rise by 750 per cent over the next three years, based on the company’s internal analysis of consumer and business trends. That’s a significant cumulative increase, higher than other projections. EE says this means that “a broad portfolio of mobile spectrum is essential for operators wanting to deliver a great customer experience for consumers and businesses in the near future”.

“We know that mobile data usage is going to keep increasing, and rapidly so,” said EE CEO Olaf Swantee at the launch this week. “The network we’re switching on today in Tech City uses the spectrum that we acquired in the Ofcom spectrum auction earlier this year, and is the first part of an infrastructure that can meet the future demands of an increasingly data-hungry nation, enabling us to stay one-step ahead of the demand.”

The LTE-Advanced network, built by EE’s infrastructure partner Huawei, covers Tech City from launch, and will be rolled out across London throughout 2014. In December, local companies from the Tech City area will be selected to become exclusive EE partners, enabling them to use the service before it becomes commercially available when compatible devices launch from mid-2014.

Pre-launch partners will be restricted to using a Huawei router, which connects up to 20 devices to the LTE-A network via wi-fi and will enable each to access speeds of up to 200Mbit/s. EE expects that the first commercially available Mobile Wi-Fi units will be introduced by summer 2014, also by Huawei, with handsets to follow in the second half of the year.

LTE-A’s fast theoretical download speed of 300Mbit/s is enabled by carrier aggregation – bringing together 20MHz of 1800MHz spectrum and 20MHz of 2.6GHz spectrum. LTE-Advanced actually has a theoretical maximum download peak data rate of 1Gbit/s and uplink of 500Mbit/s using carrier aggregation.

Such performance is needed if – and it’s still a big “if” – the media industry moves from HD to 4K. It’s still early days, but it looks like 4K may be a better evolution path than the doomed 3D TV. If the public decides it wants 4K, then networks that are already under strain from HD streaming will need serious upgrades. For example, you get by with 5Mbit/s for regular streaming from the BBC iPlayer and similar on-demand services, but 4K streaming is going to need 20Mbit/s. But first things first, we still need 4K programmes and 4K TV sets before we need to worry about transmission issues.

EE says it already has over 1.2 million 4G customers, on a network that covers 131 towns and cities (although not mine…).

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