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O2 rolls out long-range 3G broadband in 'key cities'

The operator is promising better coverage in London, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester thanks to its new-found ability to refarm 2G spectrum for 3G services
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

O2 has turned on its long-range 3G service, using spectrum that until recently it had only been allowed to use for 2G services.

Like its rival Vodafone, O2 has spectrum in the 900MHz range that it uses for standard GSM services such as voice calls and text messaging. This spectrum allows services to run over greater distances and with better in-building coverage. In January, the regulator Ofcom finally gave the all-clear for companies holding 900MHz spectrum to reuse it for mobile broadband — a practice known as spectrum refarming.

We've acted quickly to bring the benefits of 3G over 900MHz spectrum to our customers and we're thrilled with the results.
– Nigel Purdy, O2

On Friday, O2 said it had turned on its London implementation of 900MHz 3G this week. It also revealed for the first time that, since January, it has been quietly turning on the same service in "key cities" including Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. Other cities will follow "in the coming months".

"This... switch on is the latest in a series of network enhancements for O2, and is a first for the UK and Telefónica," O2 chief technology officer Nigel Purdy said in a statement on Friday. "We've acted quickly to bring the benefits of 3G over 900MHz spectrum to our customers and we're thrilled with the results. Quite simply, on O2's network, more customers can use more data, and experience it quicker."

According to O2, the use of 900MHz 3G provides a 50 percent increase in network capacity and 30 percent faster downloads. However, only customers using compatible devices such as the iPhone 4, HTC HD7 and Samsung Galaxy S can take advantage of these boosts.

Spectrum refarming

A Vodafone spokeswoman told ZDNet UK on Friday that her company "will ultimately" also refarm its 2G spectrum. She pointed out that Vodafone has less of a need to do so, because it possesses more 2.1GHz 3G spectrum than O2, meaning it already has more capacity than its rival.

ZDNet UK has asked Everything Everywhere — the combined UK operations of T-Mobile and Orange — whether it also intends to refarm its 1800MHz 2G spectrum for 3G services, but was told: "It is too early for us to say at this stage." In any event, services running over 1800MHz spectrum do not reach as far as those running over 900MHz, so there is less of a case for refarming for those operators.

The other big UK operator, 3, has only ever had 2.1GHz 3G spectrum. A spokesman for 3 said on Friday that O2's rapid deployment of 900MHz 3G "demonstrates the fundamental weakness of Ofcom's assumptions that it would take one to two years to take advantage of it".

"The competitive impact of the 2G refarm giveaway is far more real than Ofcom has stated and has come far earlier than it appears it was led to believe," 3's spokesman added.

The spectrum-refarming issue has been a long-running saga. The European Commission and Ofcom called for the strict limitations on 2G spectrum use to be altered as far back as 2007, and the Commission gave its formal permission in 2009. The issue has also been a stumbling block on the road to the upcoming 4G spectrum auction, with some operators holding up that process because they first wanted to discover what requirement they really had for new spectrum.

Although it is currently only being rolled out in cities, long-range 3G has also been frequently cited as a possible solution to the problem of poor broadband coverage in rural areas.

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