EE gives £1.5bn to address UK’s ‘under-developed’ networks

Mobile operator EE launches Signalling the Future network manifesto as it commits to spending £1.5bn on network improvements in two years

EE is to spend £1.5bn on network improvements in the next two years and pledged to bring 4G mobile network coverage to 90% of the UK’s geography and more than 99% of the population.

The mobile network operator (MNO) – which is currently embroiled in takeover negotiations with BT – has unveiled a network manifesto, dubbed Signalling the Future, in which CEO Olaf Swantee set out his plans to meet the UK’s changing digital infrastructure needs.

In the manifesto, Swantee acknowledged the UK was a large and complex market, with complicated landscape topology, major urban centres and some of Europe’s largest buildings, making mobile network builds challenging in the best of circumstances.

“Not only that but it is a country that, as a result of regulatory and competitive pressures, has spent a decade sitting on under-developed networks, ignoring the fact it was falling behind its global rivals,” he said.

Swantee noted the progress that has already been made – and not just by EE – towards extending 4G across the UK, saying the roll-out was already benefiting the economy.

According to figures produced by economic consultancy Capital Economics, said Swantee, the eventual productivity gains from 4G mobile could hit £12bn per annum, or up to 0.7% of UK gross domestic product.

“EE’s network progress has been an incredible journey in a short space of time," he said. "But again I look around and I’m not satisfied.”

Besides extending 4G voice and data coverage to a greater area and more people, and bringing up to 150Mbps data speeds to the 20 largest UK cities, EE laid out a number of specific projects that are now on the cards.

Among them will be extending mobile voice coverage along 90% of the UK’s 245,000 miles of roads, up from 82% currently, and 4G expansion to cover the country’s busiest train routes.

It will deploy low frequency 800MHz spectrum across its rural network to expand its reach by 1,500 square miles, and use micro-network technology to bring 4G to 1,500 communities missing out on rural mobile signal and being bypassed by government programme Broadband Delivery UK.

It pledged to virtually eliminate dropped calls, targeting a completion rate of 99.6% based on 150 million calls per day crossing its network.

EE will also launch 4G voice, or Voice over LTE (VoLTE), to enable calling over 4G data services and Wi-Fi calling on iOS, Windows Mobile and Android devices.

Finally, it said it would launch a foundation for technology and research leadership to help position the UK as a global leader for future 5G networks.

“Working closely with academic institutions such as the 5GIC [5G Innovation Centre] at the University of Surrey and the EU’s Horizon 2020 ‘Tweether’ project at Lancaster University on technologies that are truly ground-breaking, EE will continue to change the way people think of what’s possible with mobile,” said EE principal network artchitect Andy Sutton.

EE said its pledge came under the terms of a commitment made by all four UK MNOs – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – to spend £5bn between them to improve mobile network coverage in the UK and address the problem of so-called not-spots.

However, a spokesperson told Computer Weekly, EE’s plans were going “above and beyond” the commitment it made to the government.

Future policy and reform

Swantee also outlined a number of areas where he would like to see the government make policy changes to support and protect the MNOs’ investment.

He called for a reformed Electronics Communications Code to allow automatic rights to upgrade and share infrastructure; enabling upgrades on a frequency-neutral basis, as opposed to the current system where site rental is uplifted for rolling out services over existing or new spectrum; easier site access; and a better defined relationship between MNOs and infrastructure players.

In addition to this, Swantee said, a revised planning regime should allow an increase in mobile mast height in rural areas to cover a wider area.

He also argued that site sharing should be encouraged by not charging operators individually, that the charging regime to fibre installations should be harmonised to stop BT receiving taxpayer subsidies, and that business rates on small cell and Wi-Fi should be cut to encourage take up.

Finally, suggested Swantee, the annual licence fee paid to the Treasury on owned spectrum should be better balanced in recognition that having to pay up to £100m per annum to the government takes money away from potential investment.

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