The combined fiber and LTE trial network launched by BT Wholesale and Everything Everywhere to provide high-speed broadband to a rural community in South West England is a new and potentially replicable sharing-based model for rural connectivity.
Although the trial demonstrates the technical credibility of such an arrangement, the move from trial to commercial operation will highlight the imbalances in the partnership, and the differences in the parties’ retail and wholesale priorities. Nevertheless, the political benefits of delivering rural connectivity may well see this partnership reach maturity.
On a basic level, the trial tells us little we did not already know. LTE is far more stable than 3G was at the same point in its development, 800MHz spectrum is essential for rural coverage, and 10MHz spectrum blocks are the minimum required to make LTE useful. It is only when digging deeper that the trial becomes truly interesting.
Most importantly, it establishes that LTE can be used in conjunction with, and as an extension of, fixed broadband services on a retail or wholesale basis. It can also be run alongside one or more retail mobile operations on the same network. In addition, it is a further demonstration that spectrum from two mobile operators can be shared, dynamically managed, and services delivered with application-specific quality-of-service (QoS). These findings could be highly relevant in shaping the next-generation access landscape.
The cost benefits of a shared approach to radio access networks (RANs) are well known, and while the vast majority of the cost savings come from sharing towers, the performance benefits associated with sharing spectrum are also important. The two 10MHz blocks of spectrum in the 800MHz band used in the trial provided all the capacity, speed, and latency that were required. So far, consistent downlink speeds around 8Mbps are being achieved on a loaded network, making it comparable to ADSL+, something that essential to meet government and customer requirements.
For BT Wholesale, though, the trial is more about establishing the viability of adding LTE to its high-speed broadband access portfolio. BT does not, and is adamant it will not, hold a mobile license. BT Wholesale is therefore effectively looking at LTE as an alternative last mile or fixed wireless access solution, which is why the trial is testing LTE for both fixed and mobile services.