Two days ago Sheffield became one of only eleven cities in the UK to go live on the 4G LTE network. In Sheffield – A 4G City I explained why this is so exciting for our city. But how did we get to this point?
In September 2009, Orange and T-Mobile announced plans to merge their UK operations. In spring 2010 the new company was approved by the European Commission and the new name, Everything Everywhere, was made public. At this early stage there were no short term plans to merge the two brands, however the ability for their customers to roam across the two networks began later on that year. By October 2010 the 2G voice networks supported roaming across both networks and 3G compatibility came online shortly after.
The big picture became clear in April 2012; the T-Mobile network was shutdown in Northern Ireland leaving only the Orange services to provide for all customers. A keen eye could have seen what was happening. Certainly there were savings to be had by merging the companies, estimated at over £400m per year, but the real jewel in the deal was their combined bank of spectrum. This spectrum is what makes a mobile networks work.
Every UK mobile network has an allocation of frequency that they are permitted to provide services over. Much of this 2G spectrum has been in place for many years, but the 3G spectrum auctions were the first time the public became aware of the value in owning the airwaves. The government auction in 2000 that brought 3G services to the UK put £22 billion into the back pocket of the exchequer. Everything Everywhere Ltd now held more spectrum than any other UK network operator. So much so that even after they sold off what was required as part of agreements regarding competition, they still had more than they needed. More interestingly they would have spare capacity at frequencies compatible with LTE, more commonly referred to as 4G. Through forward planning and a willingness to work with a competitor, Orange and T-Mobile had just jumped the 4G queue and left O2 and Vodafone waiting for a 4G auction, a date for which was yet to be set.
The other major networks were furious and did everything they could to prevent Ofcom approving the use of spare 1800Mhz capacity for LTE 4G service. Their efforts were unsuccessful, and on the 21st August 2012, Ofcom approved Everything Everywhere’s request. Ofcom did force one concession; part of the EE network was to be sold off to Three to ensure fair competition in the market. Things looked as if they could only get worse for O2 and Vodafone, who by this time had signed a “tower sharing agreement” in an attempt to catch up on the manoeuvres of their competitors.
Everything Everywhere Becomes EE
Legal challenges where threatened and in the end Ofcom, along with the cooperation of the government and TV operators, agreed to bring forward the 4G auction process. The auction will still take place at the beginning of 2013, but the date the spectrum can be used by the operators was brought forward by around 5 months. This means that O2, Vodafone and Three should be able to bring their own 4G LTE services online in the first half of 2013. These changes were enough to put an end to the potential legal challenges and allow Everything Everywhere to confidently announce on the 11th of September 2012 that 4G was coming to the UK on the 30th October 2012. The new brand of EE was also announced at this date in September and significant investment into the launch has been apparent across UK media in recent months.
Sheffield LTE Map
Curious where this leaves us today and how this new network is operating in Sheffield? BirchenallHowden have started a publicly available map of LTE speeds across Sheffield. You can view it at the link below and even contribute your own results. Join in to increase the accuracy and cover of the map.
Neill talks to Sheffield City Council on launch day - Sheffield At The Forefront of 4G [Press Release 30.10.12]
Also featured in The Sheffield Star - Future is faster in Sheffield with 4G service [Published 2.11.12]