Can EE make 4G a success in Britain?
13th Dec 2012 | 08:30
2013 to be key year for next-gen technology
There's no doubt that 4G is going to be a success in Britain; faster speeds, improved services and better handsets are all things most consumers are constantly hankering over.
However we're in a special situation in the UK, with one network allowed to deploy the superfast networks ahead of its competition. EE already owned 1800MHz spectrum, capable of delivering the LTE signal, and successfully petitioned the government to allow it to offer the service to consumers.
The other big players: O2, Vodafone and Three, will have to head through an auction in 2013 to get their hands on the prized spectrum to deliver the same services, so it would seem EE has gained a huge advantage by going first.
But with the announcement of the next wave of cities getting 4G from EE, will the network gain enough from being the first to rollout the technology, or will it be associated with high costs and unknown technology? If, as it states, it will have one of the best networks out there, could launching at the same time as the others pr have prevented it having to learn how we will use 4G data while everyone is looking?
It's had to invest in a huge marketing spend, convince consumers to pay more for phones and we've many people I've spoken to don't like the prices: £36 for 500MB of data, all the way up to £56 per month for an 8GB allowance was seen as eye-watering to many.
While we can't expect to pay rock-bottom rates for the faster speeds (it's not free to deploy 4G, obviously) there was a massive contradiction in the messages from EE. On the one hand, it was saying it had chosen the data limits based on 3G usage, yet with all its posters and marketing materials it was extolling the virtues of all the new things customers can do, such as gaming and video on the go.
What will we do with it?
These activities suck down reams more data, making any 3G learnings largely irrelevant. While it's not fair to expect EE to know how Britain will consume 4G data on the go, saying 'you used to use 512MB happily, so you'll do the same on 4G' makes very little sense.
Tom Bennett, director of network services at EE, told TechRadar that EE has spent a lot of time with large networks in other countries that already have 3G, such as Verizon in the US, and confirmed that it was expecting 4G to bring the likes of YouTube into the top 10 most visited websites on a mobile.
With that in mind, it might have made more sense to give more generous data limits on 4G; if EE is confident consumers won't use them, where's the harm? It's now got to deal with being seen as overly expensive, even though the sky high prices should be expected.
The point to be made here is that by being first to market EE gets the reflected glory of being a technology pace-setter; Bennett told us that in his opinion doing so would put EE 'ahead [of competitors] by a significant margin' in terms of its 4G network quality.
And that's the key point: come mid-2013 when Vodafone et al come online with their own offerings, EE will have an entrenched customer base and a (hopefully) refined range of price plans to provide super fast speeds at a lower cost.
It's perfectly plausible that Three or O2 will use EE's 'expensive' reputation to offer cheaper 4G, but all have to bear the cost of a massive roll out and network update, making such a scenario less likely.
Do we want 4G yet?
So here we are, five weeks into 4G Britain. We've got no stats on user take up as yet, but TechRadar's tests have shown 4G to be much faster, provided you have a faster signal. Bennett tells us that independent tests in Manchester saw 4G and 3G combined speeds averaging 7.6Mbps , which is definitely faster than 3G offers.
But beyond the early adopters, very few will pay the high price to get a 4G contract when they're unsure how much data they'll be using. We need education, statistics and most importantly, a price war to convince most of us need a 4G phone in our lives.
We should raise a glass to the networks for the speed of the rollout though: the transition from 2G to 3G took nearly seven years in the UK; the move to 4G will take under two. Businesses that can swallow the cost will be able to be more connected than ever before which will provide a boost to the economy.
Price aside, 4G speeds will bring us faster downloads, more connected devices than ever before and a new world of entertainment – but consumers need to be convinced that's worth paying for when their current smartphones are providing a decent experience already.