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Lime and Canonical support EE’s radical new approach to 4G coverage

Even before its acquisition by BT, the UK’s largest mobile operator, EE, was taking some innovative approaches to solving the country’s issues of poor rural coverage. In response to government pressure, including the threat of mandatory roaming, the MNOs have been paying long-overdue attention to patchy coverage in remote areas, and as part of BT, EE’s efforts may also help to support universal broadband initiatives.

Last year, EE worked with virtualized small cell start-up Parallel Wireless to bring mobile broadband affordably to a series of villages. Now it has announced another interesting take on the issue, working with RF firm Lime Micro and Linux company Canonical on an open source programmable ‘network in a box’ project. This follows a rising trend in wireless thinking – to use open source hardware to reduce costs and make it economically viable to connect small or temporary communities.

That technology, LimeSDR, developed by Lime Micro, will be available initially through a crowdfunding campaign launching later this month, which will enable developers to acquire the boards at low cost and experiment with new applications. LimeSDR is a low cost software defined radio base station, which can be configured to support different connectivity options, including LTE and WiFi, and can support a full apps platform. The programmability is supported by Canonical’s Snappy Ubuntu Core platform.

The resulting system will initially be deployed in remote areas of the Scottish Highlands and Islands as part of EE’s involvement in the Telecom Infrastructure Project. The programming of the network will be done by the University of Highlands and Islands in Inverness.

Professor Clive Mulholland, principal and vice-chancellor of the university, said: “We are excited to be working with EE to explore the opportunities this development can offer to the university and the communities we serve. The technology could be particularly relevant to our work in remote and rural health and digital innovation.”

Meanwhile, EE predictably sees a 5G angle. Its director of radio networks, Mansoor Hanif, commented: “Apps and smartphones revolutionised the mobile experience and this could have the same impact on the network – we’re allowing anyone to build an app that can introduce a new service or a new capability to a mobile network. That could be to connect a rural area of the UK for the first time, or to be part of designing how 5G works.”

EE announced the project in the same week that it promised to cover 95% of the UK landmass with LTE by 2020. Usually, MNOs’ coverage targets relate to population, and EE already reaches 95% of the UK’s people – but because of dispersed rural communities, that only equates to 60% of the land, leaving significant gaps in 4G availability (even 2G still has holes in many areas). By 2020, EE would reach 99.8% of the population, it said, exceeding current 2G and 3G coverage.

As well as specialized approaches for ultra-rural projects, it also plans to deploy 750 additional cell sites, though it is calling on the government to relax site planning rules and to amend the Electronic Communications Code, in order to improve the economics and incentives of infrastructure investment.

To put some weight behind its intentions, EE said it had brought LTE to two remote areas at opposite ends of the UK, the Shetland Isles north east of Scotland, and the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall in the extreme west.

Ofcom wants operators to offer indoor coverage to 98% of the population by the end of next year but population-based metrics are, as EE says, becoming outmoded, especially when Internet of Things services, which may require truly ubiquitous connectivity, are considered (see separate item). Another probable factor in EE’s change of approach is the emergency services contract awarded late last year by the UK government, which has stringent coverage requirements.

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