The UK's first large-scale commercial '4G' service has gone live, with EE turning on its LTE networks in 11 major cities today.
EE, which used to be known as Everything Everywhere and which represents the merged UK operations of T-Mobile and Orange, also launched its fibre broadband product on Tuesday. According to EE, the fixed service is available to 11 million premises and will offer speeds of up to 76Mbps.
"We're investing £1.5 billion in our network to be the first company to offer mobile 4G in the UK, alongside the biggest 3G network," EE chief Olaf Swantee said in a statement.
The operator also said it had opened more than 700 branded stores on high streets across the country — these, of course, are largely rebranded T-Mobile and Orange shops.
The LTE service is now live in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield and Southampton. Customers will pay on average £5 more per month if they opt for LTE over HSPA mobile broadband.
EE said it will expand its coverage by 2,000 square miles each month, leading to a total of 16 cities being covered by the end of this year, and 98 percent of the population being able to access EE's super-fast mobile broadband by the end of 2014.
While EE's is the first large-scale LTE network, is not technically the first operator to launch such services in the UK: UK Broadband, a subsidiary of Hong Kong's PCCW, is already offering LTE to some homes and businesses in Southwark in London, Reading and Swindon.
However, UK Broadband's service is more of a fixed-line replacement product, and it also uses a relatively obscure variant of LTE developed for the Chinese market.
The 4G scene
LTE, the technology underpinning EE's services, is not technically 4G. LTE-Advanced, an upcoming revision, will be the first to qualify as being of the fourth generation of mobile communications — however, standards bodies said a couple of years ago that operators were allowed to market LTE services as '4G'.
For the coming months, EE will be the only operator in the UK to offer LTE. It gets to do this because it has a disproportionate amount of spectrum in the 1800MHz band, which it was using for 2G services but was recently given permission to 'refarm' for LTE.
Rival operators will only be able to move to 4G when they buy other spectrum, in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands, at auction early next year. Even then, EE will be the only one whose network can support the iPhone 5's LTE functionality, as that device uses 1800MHz but not the other bands.
The spectrum auction should have taken place in late 2008, but legal wranglings between the operators and the regulator Ofcom causes repeated delays. This is why the UK is behind when it comes to 4G — the technology is already relatively widely deployed in the US, Europe and elsewhere.
On the other hand, waiting until others went first has come with its own advantages. It allowed LTE-capable devices to evolve, meaning UK consumers and businesses will not be testing out the first generation.
It also let the UK's operators see how their overseas rivals' deployments worked out. This has itself provided valuable lessons: for example, until recently it was common industry wisdom that sub-1GHz spectrum was essential for a cost-effective LTE rollout, but — as EE is proving today — a lot of 1800MHz spectrum will do the job just as well.