EE has a head start on its competitors in the LTE game, and it’s looking to maintain this lead with a fast, massive rollout. Mansoor Hanif, EE’s Director of RAN Development & Programmes, describes the rollout as the fastest of its kind in the world, despite the operational model being among the most complex in the industry.
It’s about time
WinWin: Your commercial LTE launch was in October 2012; how has the progress been so far?
Mansoor Hanif: The scale is massive. We have already covered almost 60% of the U.K. population after only nine months. It’s been really fast. It’s being brought into our customers’ hands much faster than they expected. We believe it’s the fastest LTE rollout in the world of this size and scale. In terms of customer take-up, we have been very pleased with the progress. As of August 2013, we have almost 700,000 customers already, and we’re on target to exceed one million customers by the end of this year. We are also pushing the coverage further, to achieve our goal of covering 98% of the population by the end of 2014. It’s definitely going to be a very fast and challenging rollout.
WinWin: How have the customers responded to this brand new service experience?
Hanif: Our customers are very interested in the new 4G service. We are in the process of a big education operation, showing consumers and businesses what 4G really is and what it can do for them. We are the first in the market, so the onus is on us to explain 4G to the U.K. We find that once people try it, they love it. They really do understand that they want to stay with 4G rather than moving back to 3G. 3G is really good, but 4G is a whole new experience for end users.
WinWin: How does EE plan its investment across both the legacy and new networks?
Hanif: We’ve got a very clear strategy of where we want to go. We now operate 2G, 3G and 4G. In terms of 2G, we have already refarmed 2x20MHz (for LTE) in 15 major cities. We have no plan to switch off our 2G network, but we do actively encourage our customers to step up to 3G, because we believe the user experience is much better now with 3G. We are still investing in the 2G and 3G network, as well as rolling out our 4G network.
A big part of our investment strategy is to fully integrate our current network assets into a single EE network – this will significantly improve the customer experience. That also increases our capacity for 3G customers. As we integrate those two networks, we free up four frequencies for 3G. That will improve the customer experience as well. We have also invested in dual-cell HSPA technology, so we are offering the highest throughput in the country for customers on 3G.
As well as continuing to invest to the rollout of our 4G network, we are also increasing speeds and throughput via new technologies, including carrier aggregation. This will begin in the Tech City area of London where we can help startups to build new applications for those technologies.
WinWin: What is EE’s load balancing strategy across different networks in terms of device planning and network engineering?
Hanif: For the 1800MHz layer, I think it’s very clear it’s a sweet spot. In terms of coverage and capacity, it’s a really good balance, as 2600MHz is very clearly about speed and capacity in urban areas. On the 800MHz layer, there is potential for further enhancing indoor coverage in urban areas, and efficiently deploying 4G in rural areas.
We have almost 27 million customers. Many of them still use 2G, many use 3G, and now we have a growing number using 4G. We focused on handsets from launch and we now estimate that up 25% of our total customer base will have LTE-capable handsets within the next two years. That’s a significant market there for upgrade to 4G. We are specifically targeting those customers in our networks to upgrade to 4G, for a small premium. At the same time, at the 2G layer, we are reducing the number of devices that we offer for sale. We are actively encouraging customers to upgrade to 3G.
Technically speaking, we have changed our parameters on the network to push more traffic from the 2G layer to the 3G layer. This allows spectrum refarming for 4G to go ahead while ensuring the best possible customer experience. This is a very delicate and difficult engineering challenge.
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