EE says it will reach 92 percent next year and CEO Marc Allera calls on rivals and Ofcom to use geographical coverage as true metric
EE’s 4G network now covers 99 percent of the UK population and 75 percent of the country’s landmass after it switched on long range 800MHz spectrum across 700 sites for the first time.
This means 5,000 square kilometres of the UK have 4G for the first time, including parts of Shropshire, Somerset, Snowdonia, Oban, Glasgow, Berkshire and Derbyshire, while half a million customers will enjoy superior indoor coverage.
Another 3,000 sites will be switched on before the end of the year and EE expects to hit 92 percent by this time next year. It is committed to a 95 percent target by 2020 is building 450 new sites.
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EE network expansion
“Our 4G footprint is now larger than the other three networks,” declared EE CEO Marc Allera, who said the expansion was essential not just for consumers and businesses but also the Internet of Things (IoT). “This year, we’ve added 50,000 square kilometres: the size of Belgium.
“What’s left is the really, really hard five percent where people don’t go. In some parts of Scotland some people haven’t set foot for 20 years, but even still we’re looking at [providing coverage] with satellites, balloons and drones.
“The 95 percent we will cover will cover the places our customers go.”
EE has the widest coverage and most customers of any UK operator and now its 4G network actually provides more comprehensive coverage than 3G. And now the company wants its competitors and regulator Ofcom to use geographical coverage as a metric more frequently in marketing materials and customer communications.
Allera has written to Ofcom as well as O2, Three and Vodafone, claiming the industry needs to be more transparent and that current metrics, such as population coverage, are misleading customers into ambitiously high expectations.
“As an industry, we need to change something,” he said, stating that population coverage only covered the home and workplace – not in between. “This is a call to action to the other operators and regulators for coverage clarity.”
The letter also calls for operators to deliver data speeds and geographical coverage on a county level and to better inform customers about how different devices will perform on different networks. For example, only some devices are compatible with certain frequencies.
EE wants Ofcom to be the industry standard for network testing, claiming operators are confusing customers by claiming they are the best according to certain reports. For example, RootMetrics says EE is the best 4G network while P3 says EE and Vodafone are joint-best. Allera said all operators should commit more funding for testing.
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“We want Ofcom to measure coverage, speed and [performance] on different devices properly,” he argued. “It’s important that we don’t see claims from different operators every week and they can get an impartial view which is agreed on by the industry.”
Earlier this week Ofcom ruled that BT or EE could not bid for the 2.3GHz spectrum available at auction next year because it would control too much of the UK’s available bandwidth.
Allera said this would not make a difference to its expansion plans but that the ruling was unfair and did not rule out an appeal.
“The market needs to be competitive and we need to be able to bid,” he said, adding that EE did not have as much low frequency spectrum and did not want to be prevented from bidding from that in the future.
The 700MHz band is much prized by operators and is expected to be released in the coming years.
“We’re wading through [the report] and we’ll be going back to Ofcom. It needs to be looked at at a case by case basis.”
The other band up for grabs is 3.4GHz. EE isn’t prevented from bidding for that and it is expected the band will form the basis of the early 5G services when they go live around 2020.
Allera said EE’s 4G expansion would from the basis for 5G rollout but said that there were many factors and that 4G still had 10-15 years left as a viable technology, especially for consumers.
“The first point is that 5G will be built on 4G infrastructure,” he explained. “We also need more cell sites than we have today. We have 18,500, but we’re going to need 40-50,000 to deliver 5G.
“They won’t be traditional masts but more like small cell sites, indoor and outdoor, using the very high frequency spectrum needed for 5G. We’re going to need more flexible and speedy planning reform.
“For the first few years 5G is not going to be a major consumer play. There’s s a lot more we can get out of 4G.”