Q&A: EE Evolves Its 4G LTE Strategy

EE has been the only 4G LTE operator on the scene in the UK since it launched in October 2012, but it hasn't rested on its laurels.

Sure, it's taken full advantage of its market leadership (er, ownership) to sign up as many British early adopters as possible, knowing that its rivals would be planning aggressive launches of their own. (See O2 Brings 4G Rivalry to the UK and Euronews: EE Sees 4G Take-up Double in Q2.)

But EE hasn't just been capitalizing on its short-lived monopoly of the UK 4G services sector -- it has also made some big strides in the past 10 months.

Most notably, the carrier used its ample spectrum holdings to double the speed of its network to 150 Mbit/s, a speed only matched by NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM) and SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) to date. (See EE to Double 4G Speeds and Docomo Preps 150MB 4G LTE.)

Now the carrier is looking towards LTE-Advanced, VoLTE and new services to ride on its 4G network, not to mention bracing itself for when its competitors do launch LTE later this year.

David Salam, EE's director of network strategy, architecture and design, caught up with Light Reading to explain the carrier's 4G advantage (hint: It's all about the spectrum), what's next and offer some advice for new entrants.

On its LTE progress: We've been pushing 4G as far as we can and now have 55 percent population coverage. We launched with 33 percent coverage; pushed up to 80 cities now. We've been driving it fairly hard with the view that we want to make the service nationwide, ubiquitous, by the end of the year.

The service is pretty impressive. We've made sure it has the highest quality backhaul to it. We're guaranteeing speeds in the 25-to-30 Mbit/s range. We've just launched double speed, operating in 20MHz radio spectrum for LTE. We have devices capable of 100 Mbit/s, but we advertise it 24 to 30 range. That is very well backed up by a lot of independent testing, analysis and scrutiny and speed tests. We know we have a pretty well operating network.

On EE's plans for VoLTE: VoLTE and IMS services, we'll look to introduce next year. We're also demonstrating our next step in spectrum. EE is fortunate in that we are spectrum rich. We have LTE on clean 20MHz spectrum already; a great starting position, and we actually have more spectrum available. We'll look to put a demonstration out in London of 20MHz carrier aggregation, to demonstrate speeds of 300 Mbit/s. We'll continue to innovate on speed and performance -- some of this is necessary for capacity and growth, but also to introduce new services.

We found circuit-switched fallback [CSFB] for voice very stable from the beginning by putting deliberate aspects in for it with our core network vendors. We find that fallback is very reliable, and delays are minimal. It's efficient as a solution, so we haven't seen a need to rush to VoLTE. It will bring some additional benefits, but CSFB solution is good enough as a service.

On why its network's not LTE-Advanced: The double speeds today do not use carrier aggregation. We have a single box of 20MHz spectrum. We can use multiple of them, so we don't need to aggregate the second block for 10… It's having the right spectrum available. We launched using 1800MHz spectrum that was in use for GSM 20 years ago, and we've been refarming it for LTE. We generated 10MHz first for the initial launch. That gave us great service and speeds. We realized we had enough headroom with the network integration we're doing at the moment to then turn on the next 10MHz as well, giving us a total of 20.

This year we had a spectrum auction with Ofcom , acquired new spectrum in 800MHz and 2600MHz bands and can easily deploy an extra 20MHz. We will use carrier aggregation for 20MHz plus 20, getting us speeds up to 300 Mbit/s. Carrier aggregation talked about is 10 plus 10 levels, getting to the speeds we have in the UK already. We'll take a step beyond that soon.

On which LTE-Advanced features matter: Carrier aggregation in itself is very interesting. The other feature is more about how we balance out usage around cells and how we increase performance around the cell, giving a good experience to everyone around the cell sites, whether they are close or far way. There are lots of technologies working on providing this, whether it's scheduling or active antennas, a whole bunch of capabilities are coming together. We are working out what's the best combination of those techs that will give us the maximum customer game for our customers. Carrier aggregation definitely is coming second half of this year, running slightly into next year. I suspect we'll start looking to deploy whatever the chosen technologies we go with in the middle of next year, but the next one will be the coordinating scheduling capability.

On who needs LTE-Advanced: LTE-Advanced will be more of a demo this year, but next year it will be marketed differently. You'll need different devices, it will come as a premium and it may be limited geographically. We are working through the plans at the moment. This will be targeted at the business market rather than consumer… It comes down to who actually wants the premium speeds. If you're giving capabilities of several hundred megabits per second, I expect those are more demanded by business users.

On marketing 4G: We'll talk about 4G a lot, but we don't talk about LTE. The 4G piece does sell, but LTE doesn't. That's something we've had to have deliberate education on in the market, make sure customers understand it. We have it available in stores to demonstrate it and show them 3G and 4G side by side. We spend a lot of time doing that education.

On where small cells belong: We use small cells for specific in-building solutions or in high-traffic areas. But if you're talking about the bigger hype around volume and traffic demand, we're probably in a simpler position than other operators. Within the UK, we have the largest spectrum holdings. That means our macro cells, the main towers, are actually capable of still growing. We can absorb an enormous amount of data growth. By putting out more and more spectrum -- we have 35MHz at 3600, there's 40MHz we're not using, plus others we can refarm -- we're in a position where we don't need to rush with small cells. The need will be driven by timing and demand in spot locations. In the second half of this decade, we'll have a small cell solution, but the scale is still variable at the moment in term of numbers.

On advice for other LTE operators: One reason we've been aggressive with our deployment is we see absolute customer demand coming through. The point there is really the customers are rotating into it as quickly as they can, seeing the benefits are there. With the demand for 4G and wanting it deployed within a window, it's the fastest rollout of any technology we've seen. It's a learning experience. Keep up with it. Get on with it, more than anything else.

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

MordyK 8/22/2013 | 2:34:01 PM
Re: More LTE in the UK EE's insurgency spirit makes me think about how Racal which became Vodafone took on BT and launched a better network than BT even before BT launched their own network.
Sarah Thomas 8/22/2013 | 12:24:07 PM
More LTE in the UK It's only been a few weeks since I interviewed David, but the UK market has already seen more LTE activity. Earlier this month O2 annouced it would launch 4G in the market on Aug. 29. It will clearly be playing catch up for a long while. How will it compete against EE? There have been complaints about EE's customer service, but that really isn't enough to make people choose O2 over it. I feel a price war coming on...
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