Heavy Reading Research

EE's LTE Service

For the past few weeks, I've been using the still relatively new LTE network from EE in the U.K. – one of the very first 1800MHz LTE networks globally. LTE itself is not news anymore – see my earlier reviews of TeliaSonera in 2010 and Verizon Wireless in 2011 – but EE is the first to launch in the U.K., one the world's most advanced mobile markets, and has come to market with mature, smartphone-centric proposition. Certainly it merits a review. The conclusion, in a sentence: This is a great service – easily the best available in the U.K. – and can be transformational for the U.K. developer and digital-media sectors seeking to innovate on the mobile platform and export expertise and services worldwide. From an industry standpoint, EE's deployment has to be a case study in how to very quickly deploy a robust network at sufficient scale to be commercially relevant in 1800MHz "GSM spectrum." It is also a pointer to why we need VoLTE and rich media services, and – to me at least – it heralds the beginning of the end for 3G. Yes, I'm gushing; and yes, the network isn't loaded yet; and yes, I live in inner London; but in my experience thus far, it really is that good. Here are a few other observations – and one criticism – about the service: Coverage Is Excellent
At the launch of EE's LTE service in October 2012, the biggest concern I had was coverage. With an 1800MHz grid, would the operator really spend the money to build out the network? Or would it settle for a vanity launch in central London and let the marketing department run wild? The service has been live for four or five months now, and in my corner of southeast and central London, coverage is nothing short of excellent. Outdoors I have had 4G signal virtually everywhere. Every point on my bike ride home, the train journey to the office, the bus trip into town – in fact, more or less everywhere I go regularly – is covered. It helps that I live and work in Zones 1 and 2 in a part of town festooned with mobile masts, but at the weekend on a nature reserve in Hampshire, I noticed a 4G signal while hiding in the reeds bird-spotting with my kids. Uplink Speeds
Simply: wow. 10Mbit/s uplink is not unusual and 5Mbit/s is common. This compares with 3Mbit/s uplink on my Virgin Internet at home on a good day, and 2Mbit/s in the office. People don't fuss much about uplink speeds, but I think it's becoming more important for backing up photos and music, for sharing video and audio files, and also for video calls. I can't say for sure, but it felt like the quality of Skype video on the Nokia Lumia 920 I was using benefited from the extra grunt on the uplink. People on the other end of the call said video quality was the best they had seen on Skype. Connection Setup Times
For end users, perhaps the thing that is most noticeably better on LTE than 3G is how quickly a device can establish an active connection from a cold start and start passing traffic. In 3G the time to set up a PDP context can be agonizingly slow (I exaggerate, but you get the idea), and with fast dormancy to save battery life, there can be an off/on feel to the technology. In LTE, the EPS bearer setup is much quicker (EE seems to have done a decent job optimizing this, as far as I can tell), and it feels closer to always-on Wi-Fi than off/on 3G. 'Snapiness'
With this, I'm referring how the service feels to use. The combination of fast setup times, high speed and low latency makes for a much snappier experience overall. Given that we're all impatient ingrates (or immensely keen to increase our productivity, if you prefer), this is where the performance battle will be won and lost. And quite simply, LTE is so noticeably better that going back to 3G feels like wearing flares. Voice – Or What Doesn't Work So Well
The EE network currently uses circuit-switch fallback for voice calls, which this means the device drops back to the 2G or 3G network to make or receive calls. In practice, this is not noticeably different from how mobile phone calls normally work. But because the data connection also falls back to 3G, if you do happen to be browsing while talking, you'll definitely notice the dip in performance. Once the call is finished, the return to 4G, in my experience, was variable. Mostly it would return quickly, but often there was noticeable lag. Once, the device lost service altogether. In many ways, this counts as a "nice problem to have." It's not urgent yet – voice works, and we can live with the downsides – and you can argue that it's only noticeable because of how good LTE is to use. But in time, it must be addressed. A Skype call on 4G, for example, simply sounds so much better than a regular mobile call and, as time goes on, customers will want a better rich-voice service. VoLTE will, I think, quickly move from being an aspiration to a necessity for LTE operators. Conclusion
So, thanks for the chance to trial your LTE network, EE. You've ruined 3G for me, but given the U.K. something better. Without a doubt, you have the best mobile data network in London today. — Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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