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O2 turns on London 4G trial

The mobile operator has begun the first live trial of an LTE network in a major UK city, in the hopes of readying itself for when the 4G spectrum auction rolls around
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

O2 has begun a trial of the 4G mobile broadband technology LTE in London, the operator said on Monday.

The nine-month pilot, which will run from now until summer 2012, will cover areas of dense usage including Kings Cross, Canary Wharf, Soho, Westminster and the South Bank. It will involve more than 25 base stations, and will make O2 the first operator to conduct a live trial of LTE in a major British city.

"Today's launch of the UK's first 4G London trial network demonstrates our commitment to delivering 4G to our customers at the earliest opportunity," O2 UK chief Ronan Dunne said in a statement. "The work we are doing now will lay the foundations for our commercial 4G network when it launches in the UK."

LTE did not originally qualify as 4G, unlike its successor LTE Advanced, which meets the criteria of offering a real-world 100Mbps downlink speeds while the user is moving. LTE only achieves around 50Mbps, and does still not fully work in motion.

However, the ITU said in December last year that LTE, WiMax and "other evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third-generation systems now deployed" could permissably be marketed as 4G.

Participants in the trial will use Samsung B3730 mobile broadband dongles, which theoretically support speeds of up to 100Mbps, as well as handsets and portable hotspots. The 2.6GHz spectrum being used is capable of supporting fibre-beating speeds of up to 150Mbps, with the right technology.

LTE's performance improvement over 3G should allow people using the technology to run high-quality videocalls and high-definition TV off their connection. Those taking part in the 40-square-kilometre test include some small businesses, John Lewis department store staff and members of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). People visiting The O2 Arena music venue in the Docklands will also get to test it out.

The O2 trial will use radio and core networking equipment from Nokia Siemens Networks, which is also providing gear for backhaul alongside Cambridge Broadband Networks and NEC.

O2's is not the first live trial of LTE in the UK. Rival operator Everything Everywhere joined BT in a real-world test of the technology in October, although that trial is in the relatively low-density environment of Cornwall.

Those examining how wireless technologies such as LTE operate in real life need to test it in a variety of situations. In the countryside, LTE will offer the advantage of propagating over long distances.

In dense urban environments, the technology will be more useful for its ability to penetrate into buildings and support large numbers of users, due to its relatively high bandwidth. The urban test will tell O2 how best to deploy LTE in London's geography, taking into account the city's building types.

O2 had already done some urban tests in Slough, but these did not involve the public and were on nowhere near the same scale as the London trial.

The trial will also help the operator get ready for when the 4G spectrum auction finally rolls around. Once scheduled for September 2008, squabbling by various operators including O2 has led to repeated delays, and the spectrum needed to run public LTE services will now only go under the hammer towards the end of 2012 at the earliest.

The four-year delay has extended the lag between the UK and other countries around the world that have already deployed 4G, such as the US, Germany and Australia. A study by the policy organisation Open Digital, published in October, suggested that UK businesses are losing out on more than £730m a year in productivity gains due to the delayed rollout.

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