EE says major investment will deliver 4G to areas that don’t even have 2G, boosting LTE population coverage to 99.8 percent of the UK
EE plans to cover 95 percent of the UK’s landmass with 4G by the end of the decade as part of a major network expansion.
At present, EE’s LTE network provides 96 percent outdoor population coverage, but covers just 60 percent of the landmass. All four major operators have committed to spend a combined £5 billion in delivering coverage to 90 percent of the UK’s area – but this is just for 2G voice and text services.
New EE CEO Marc Allera claims that by going above and beyond this requirement, a 4G service will be available to 99.8 percent of the UK.
EE has 14 million 4G customers, the most of any UK operator, and the best coverage. However, recent research from OpenSignal found that users on EE were only able to receive an LTE signal on 60.6 percent of the time.
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“We all know that we’re all spending more and more time on smartphones,” said Allera. “If I go back to 2012, the average monthly data usage was 400MB per month. Average monthly use is now 2GB – a five-fold increase.
“The complicated thing we have to do is customers move. They travel to really inconvenient places – especially in the summer. Expectations have grown. We want to cover the whole landmass of where our customers go.
“I think this industry talks to you in population coverage, but that never distinguishes. Are you talking about 2G or 4G? Are you saying a customer is covered if all they can do is call and text? In today’s digital society, does that constitute coverage? I’d say that’s a notspot and doesn’t take into account how customers move.”
Eventually, EE could turn its attention to covering the final five percent of landmass, not to support people, but the Internet of Things (IoT).
Coverage will be improved by a combination of new sites and long range 800MHz spectrum – something which should improve indoor coverage too. EE expects 4,000 sites to be equipped with 800MHz by 2020, mostly in rural areas, but also in some urban and suburban areas.
EE has just switched on 4G in the Isles of Scilly and the Shetland Islands, two of the most far flung parts of the United Kingdom.
Building new sites though, can be problematic. EE, along with the other operators, has been a vocal critic of planning regulations that can make it difficult to deploy network infrastructure.
Operators have limited rights to access sites when compared to utilities companies and negotiations with local authorities can be difficult. EE has joined calls for reforms to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) while Prime Minister David Cameron has hinted legislation could be relaxed.
When asked by TechWeekEurope whether this network expansion was dependent on reforms to planning regulations, Allera said it would happen regardless.
“We can achieve this without the barriers removed, but it would be quicker and faster if we could gain access to the sites we have difficulty getting to,” he replied. “A lot of people did not want masts ten, fifteen years ago. These days, we are inundated with requests from MPs and local communities.
“[But] we have some landlords charging ‘ransom rents’. Unlike gas and electricity, [landlords] can be prohibitive. We need partnership with handset manufacturers, governments and regulators.”
At the end of the project, it could be that some areas of the country have 4G coverage and no 2G or 3G, this makes services like Voice over LTE (VoLTE) crucial, yet many handsets can’t yet support it. EE is unworried, noting that VoLTE will become a standard feature in the years to come.
“We’re going to have the most comprehensive geographical coverage in the world,” said Mansoor Hanif, director of Radio Access Networks at EE. “Our Emergency Services Network (ESN) is going to be based on 4G, so VoLTE is a must. People will be upgrading their handsets over the next few years, so VoLTE will be standard issue.”
EE said the reason behind the expansion is to offer the best coverage possible and help it stand out in a competitive UK mobile market. It claims the certainty afforded by its new owner BT has allowed it to embark such a programme.
“The security of our ownership structure gives you confidence to make long term investment,” said Allera, noting that Orange and Deutsche Telekom had been willing sellers and it was unclear whether EE would float itself or be taken over by another entity.
“It’s very hard to make long term plans in that environment. Giving security of your ownerships structure with a [good parent company] helps. We’ve got more access to resources than we used to have.
“We bring a group of very talented mobile experts [to BT]. Bring the two together and you can see a lot of opportunity.”