LTE Spetrum and Auctions

Exclusion from next UK auction will not halt EE’s progress

UK telco BT’s mobile arm deploys 800 MHz spectrum to fill notspots and boost coverage claims, now harnessing three LTE bands

UK telco BT’s mobile arm, EE, may have been excluded from the next spectrum auction, as regulator Ofcom seeks a fairer balance of assets between the country’s four MNOs, but it will still have over 40% of UK mobile spectrum after the sale, and it is making use of its attractive mixture of LTE airwaves to keep a step ahead of its rivals.

The company has both 1.8 GHz refarmed GSM spectrum, and 800 MHz holdings, so it can harness an ideal mixture of low frequencies for affordable broad coverage and indoor penetration, and midband frequencies for higher capacity. It has also used carrier aggregation to include its 2.6 GHz spectrum, in order to densify its network in busy areas and drive peak speeds up to 450Mbps (LTE Category 9) and eventually beyond.

Until now, EE has not made use of the 800 MHz spectrum it acquired in the 2013 UK 4G auction, but it has now switched on these airwaves to fill hundreds of LTE ‘notspots’ overnight and seize another advantage over competitors Vodafone, O2 and 3UK. By turning on the low frequencies, it is covering 5,000 square kilometers of ‘notspots’.

The operator said indoor penetration was improved for about 500,000 homes in parts of the counties of Shropshire, Somerset, Snowdonia, Oban, Glasgow, Berkshire and Derbyshire. It says a further 3,000 sites will be bolstered by low frequency spectrum before the end of this year.

EE gained a headstart over the other MNOs when it was allowed by regulator Ofcom to refarm its 1.8 GHz GSM spectrum for LTE, provided it divested about 20% of the spectrum to 3UK. It started offering LTE services in the band in 2012, before O2, Vodafone or 3UK were able to secure any 4G spectrum – the 800 MHz auction did not take place until 2013; while Vodafone and O2 had their 2G networks in 900 MHz instead of 1.8 GHz (and 3UK did not have any 2G).

The operator recently started to report its coverage figures based on geography rather than population, describing the latter metric as “outdated” because it ignores the needs of very rural users. It says it currently offers LTE to 75% of the UK by landmass, and aims to reach 95% by 2020.

It conducted a survey, which found that half of UK consumers expect to have mobile coverage throughout the UK, because operators tell them they have achieved 99% coverage – but this applies to population not landmass. EE will begin reporting coverage in population terms too from January next year, and with its new ‘Clear on Coverage’ campaign, is calling on its rivals to adopt the dual method too, to provide a truer picture of the availability of mobile broadband to all citizens.

EE CEO Marc Allera said: “Today, people think they will get mobile coverage absolutely everywhere, because as an industry we’ve talked about coverage with confusing population metrics, and language that sets the wrong expectations. Too often, the customer experience has been very different from the marketing. That has to stop.”

Vodafone said it has been pushing for “a common industry approach” to network coverage reports since 2014, though it did not define the criteria. It said it offers LTE coverage to 67% of the UK landmass.

However, it is not all going EE’s way. The UK’s next spectrum auction will see some 150 MHz made available next year in the 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands, as well as an additional 40 MHz in the 2.3 GHz band that is immediately available for use. But EE and parent BT have been barred from bidding for this spectrum, and following the auction their combined spectrum share will fall to 42% of the UK total.

In its proposals for the auction, regulator Ofcom is not planning to cap the amount of 3.4 GHz spectrum that any one player can bid on. This band will be of particular interest for future 5G deployments, which are expected to make heavy use of higher frequency bands for dense small cells.

“We expect this band to be an important enabler of 5G deployment, and it is possible that 5G networks will require access to large blocks of contiguous spectrum,” Ofcom said, in its consultation document. “Exactly how operators deploy 5G networks is currently uncertain, but we believe there to be a material risk that over-specifying limitations on spectrum holdings at this point might constrain an operator’s ability to innovate.”

As well as EE, the smallest mobile operator, 3UK, was disappointed by Ofcom’s recommendations. It had called for a cap of 30% on the spectrum holdings which any one player could hold.

“The mobile industry is failing customers and Ofcom has showed it has no interest in addressing that,” 3UK CEO Dave Dyson told Total Telecom. “A 30% cap on total spectrum ownership and a spectrum reservation for smaller operators are the only measures that will preserve competition for the benefit of UK mobile consumers.”

Ofcom’s consultation will close on January 30 2017.

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