Where in the world has the best 4G coverage, even for the remotest spots?

Finland's Ukkoverkot is using 450MHz band to make LTE 4G network available for the whole country.
Written by Eeva Haaramo, Contributor
Summer house in Lapland
Finns' rural summer houses will soon get full mobile coverage. Image: Shutterstock

Relaxing in the peace of your remote summer house doesn't have to mean disconnecting from the rest of the world any more. A new Finnish carrier, Ukko Mobile, will soon launch the world's first fully nationwide LTE 4G network using the long-range 450MHz band.

"LTE networks operating at the 450MHz frequency have so far been in very limited use. Typically high-speed LTE networks [800MHz and above] have been available primarily over limited geographical areas and urban centres," says Antti Pellinen, CEO of Ukkoverkot, the company that owns Ukko Mobile.

"There are some city states (Singapore, Hong Kong) that offer a 'nationwide' service, but no other country is near the same coverage size as we are in Finland. After all, Finland's area is over 338,000 square kilometres, which is over 300 times the area of Hong Kong or Singapore."

Ukko Mobile claims its LTE 4G network will cover 99.9 percent of Finland's population, virtually the whole of the sparsely populated country. This has pushed Finland past its neighbour Sweden, home of the world's first LTE network, where incumbent operator Tele2 today has a 4G network covering 99 percent of the population.

"When we talk about sparsely-populated areas, even small percentage differences in population coverage make a big difference geographically," Pellinen says. "The last 0.9 percent of population coverage is where it is most expensive to build networks."

The Ukko Mobile network will offer average download speeds of between 3Mpbs and 10Mbps, with maximum speeds of 15Mbps. Upload speeds will typically range from 1Mbps to 3Mbps, with a maximum of 6Mbits per second. This is enough to stream online videos but doesn't compare to coverage in the country's big cities, where far faster connections are available.

"While these connection speeds are not among the highest in the market, they are still the fastest available connection speeds in many locations in Finland. Ukko Mobile will be further developing the network and its service speed in 2015," Pellinen says.

Consequently, the focus is on reliability and reach and this is where the major benefits of the 450MHz band come to play. Lower frequencies enable signals to travel longer distances and this means fewer base stations and therefore much lower costs to cover a vast area.  

There is also a potentially significant upside in populated areas due to the relative lack of use of 450MHz, but Ukko Mobile and its relatively small team of 20 employees will primarily aim the network at companies, public sector bodies, and emergency services. There will also be provisions for demanding consumers in rural areas who don't mind that the 450Mhz band isn't supported by most smartphones and tablets.

To access the Ukko Mobile 450MHz network users will need a separate modem. Other devices can then be connected to the modem via wi-fi or Ethernet. The service will be data-only with no cellular call or text messaging available, and will cost between €50 and €100, depending on the length of the customer's contract.

While Ukkoverkot will offer the first nationwide LTE 4G network in the world, using 450MHz band for 4G isn't a unique to the company: Brazil has been trialling 450MHz LTE for the past few years and aims to have 60 percent of its rural areas covered by December 2014.

"At the moment the Brazilian networks are driving the development of 450MHz LTE, but increasing number of countries are either already deploying or will be transferring to this technology in Europe too," Pellinen says.

The UK won't be one of those countries. Communications regulator Ofcom states the 450MHz band is not something it is focusing on for 4G mobile use due to "limited interest" from carriers.

The relatively small size of England (geographically, it's one third the size of Finland) is likely to have played a role and consequently Ofcom has removed competing demands for the spectrum. EE is currently the largest 4G provider in the UK and after announcing its rural rollout in May, covers approximately 72 percent of the UK population with 4G.

But in Finland Ukkoverkot sees 450MHz as the way to go and is determined to make swift progress. The company only bought its 450MHz spectrum in May yet expects to have LTE upgrades complete in the third quarter of this year.

While it's good news for Finnish consumers, those outside the region will have to look on in envy. Covering a country of the size of Finland is a big investment for a newcomer like Ukkoverkot and as such it has no plans to expand the service outside of Finland at this point. 

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