4G in Europe: How far, how fast and how much is LTE in Poland?

In the first of a series of articles examining the 4G LTE landscape across Europe, ZDNet takes a look at how Poland's fourth-generation services are measuring up.
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

The story goes that while London was the first city in the world to have gas-powered street lighting, it was one of the last cities to adopt electrical lighting. The same concept (albeit reversed) could apply to Poland when it comes to standard broadband vs LTE adoption.

While the country has been lagging when it comes to fixed broadband and the country's mobile broadband uptake is also one of the lowest in Europe, it is surging ahead on 4G: back in 2010, the country became the fourth in the world to get LTE.

A virtual monopoly

Since then, LTE services in Poland have been offered by the Zygmund Solorz-Zak Group, through its telco Polkomtel.

Its LTE network covers around 35 percent of the Polish population, with coverage concentrated in the larger cities — up from 22 percent at the start of 2011. At the end of 2012, according to Grzegorz Bernatek, an analyst at Audytel, there were about 100,000 LTE dongles active on LTE.

The company offers LTE through two different avenues: Plus, its mobile brand and the largest operator in the country; and Cyfrowy Polsat, the group's TV and internet arm. Three other companies in the Solorz-Zak group also resell LTE data access, giving the company a virtual monopoly on LTE services.

When it comes to pricing, LTE is so far comparable to 3G offerings. The current LTE options range from 30 zloty (about €7.50) for a data cap of 2GB or 3GB, or up to 160 zloty (€40) for 35GB. Speeds are at around 100Mbps, which is not quite the maximum attainable on LTE, but is still markedly faster than the 42Mbps HSPA+ services deliver. Also, the Solorz-Zak companies offer a special night pack free of charge: 50GB between 12am and 8am.

The future alternatives

The growth of LTE coverage in Poland is one of the highest in Europe, notes telecoms analyst Michal Wlasenko of IDC. Growth of coverage by populaion "is expected to grow to around 60 percent at year-end 2013," he says. "Except for the Baltic states, other countries in the Central European region have been slower to implement the LTE networks."

Other Polish mobile networks are looking into providing LTE, but are not yet offering it for a variety of reasons. For example, operator Play has previously said that it will forego normal LTE in favour of LTE Advanced. Orange has stated it will roll out LTE across all its European operations, but that could take until 2015. T-Mobile has not announced plans yet but, like the other operators, it's bidding in Poland's current auctions for 1800MHz spectrum bands.

The auction for the 1800MHz band is ongoing, with the results expected by the middle of the year. Once closed, the winning operators will get rights to use tranches of spectrum until the end of 2027. Besides the usual suspects of telcos, one fixed-line internet provider Sferia has also tabled bids. For those operators that lose out in the auction however, there will be a second chance, with further sell-offs of 4G-appropriate spectrum.

Growing coverage

"The 1800MHz spectrum auction, aimed at extending 3G/LTE coverage to more rural areas and increasing competition, is currently underway," says IDC's Wlasenko of IDC. "More spectrum auctions, including bands of 800MHz and 2600MHz, are expected to happen in 2013-14, which will allow other carriers to catch up with their 4G offerings."

In terms of coverage, the current auction is important, according to Wlasenko. "The 1800MHz spectrum auction rules require that the winners build out their networks within 24 months from the date of reservation delivery," he says. Coupled with the stipulation by regulators that operators must have 1,800 base stations ready within two years of getting the licence, it looks like Poland is set for a significant LTE coverage boost before too long.

However, LTE coverage is still limited in rural areas, meaning that blanket 4G in Poland is still far from being a reality right now. But with LTE coverage expanding steadily at around one percentage point each month, Wlasenko thinks it might pick up that role in the near future. "Especially with fixed broadband lagging in Poland, there may be an opportunity for mobile carriers to use LTE as a basis for challenging the fixed-line players in terms of broadband access and multiplay bundles.

"In fact, bringing 4G access to Poles presents a significant opportunity to the carriers as Poland is so far behind the EU averages in all of the broadband access modes (DSL, FTTP, WiMax, cable etc) — with the sole exception of 4G LTE."

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