UK mobile operator EE has begun trying out a 400 Mbit/s service over its 4G network at Wembley Stadium in northwest London and it expects to begin trialing LTE-Broadcast technology at the famous venue by June.
The operator says the 400 Mbit/s technology could be introduced at mobile data hotspots around the UK as soon as next year. It is also planning a commercial launch of its 150 Mbit/s "4G+" service at Wembley Stadium late next month.
The 4G+ service works by combining 20MHz in each of the 1800MHz and 2.6GHz ranges -- a process known as carrier aggregation -- and was launched commercially in central London in October.
EE , which has teamed up with US chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) and China's Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. on the latest trials, says the 400 Mbit/s technology builds on this carrier-aggregation technique by adding another 15MHz channel in the 2.6GHz band.
Currently the target of a £12.5 billion ($19.3 billion) takeover bid by UK fixed-line incumbent BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), EE occupies a privileged position in the country's mobile market, controlling significantly more 4G spectrum than any of its network rivals, and it is eager to turn this to its commercial advantage. (See BT Locks Down £12.5B EE Takeover Deal.)
Table 1: Spectrum Holdings of UK Operators
|800MHz||900MHz||1800MHz||2100MHz||2100MHz unpaired||2.6GHz||2.6GHz unpaired|
|Source: European Communications Office, Ofcom, companies|
Forthcoming auctions of 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz spectrum might give EE's rivals an opportunity to redress the spectrum balance, but the 4G ecosystem in these bands remains relatively undeveloped, insists an EE spokesperson.
Although real-life connection speeds are bound to be much lower than the headline figures EE cites, the availability of 4G+ and, ultimately, 400 Mbit/s services in busy areas should allow a large number of customers to enjoy high-speed data services at the same time.
Outside London, other areas where the 400 Mbit/s technology might eventually be introduced include Broad Street in Birmingham and parts of the Portsmouth University campus, according to EE's spokesperson.
Demonstrating the 400 Mbit/s technology to Light Reading on a drizzly afternoon at Wembley Stadium, EE representatives acknowledged that one of the main barriers to a commercial rollout was the lack of so-called "Cat 9" devices that can support the headline speeds.
Smartphones incorporating Cat 9 are not expected to become widely available before the end of 2016, according to analyst firm ABI Research. (See ABI Predicts Cat 9/10 LTE Handset Shipments.)
An end to "bufferface"?
Under a six-year partnership deal signed in February last year, EE is rolling out a number of advanced mobile technologies at Wembley Stadium and regards the venue as an important testing ground for new products and services, along with the Tech City district of east London and the sparsely populated county of Cumbria in northwest England.
Another 4G technology that has grabbed EE's interest is LTE-Broadcast -- also known as evolved Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (eMBMS) -- and EE confirmed to Light Reading that it will conduct trials of eMBMS at Wembley Stadium in the first half of this year.
The operator carried out eMBMS tests in Glasgow during last summer's Commonwealth Games and believes the technology has a key role to play in supporting the use of video services by 4G customers. (See EE to Trial 4G Broadcast in Scotland.)
Providing video content to customers could be done far more efficiently with broadcasting technology than using 4G unicast streaming, which tends to gobble up capacity and disrupt services in busy cells. That could make eMBMS especially useful at major venues used for concerts and sports events.
Although previous mobile broadcasting technologies have vanished without a trace, the prospects for eMBMS look much brighter.
For one thing, it can be integrated with the existing 4G network and does not require dedicated spectrum, according to Peter Carson, a senior director of marketing with Qualcomm, which is collaborating with EE on carrier aggregation and eMBMS.
It also works in a more dynamic fashion than its doomed predecessors, which would send broadcast signals even if customers were not watching the content.
As with higher-speed 4G services, one of the main issues right now is a lack of eMBMS handsets, but a growing number of operators globally appear to be getting behind the technology.
According to the Global mobile Suppliers Association, at least 19 mobile operators around the world were studying, trialing or deploying LTE-Broadcast technology in October last year.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading