Following British Telecom’s acquisition of EE, the UK’s largest mobile network, for £12.5bn in early 2015, it should come as no surprise that EE has recently announced plans to roll out wireless broadband solutions over their 4G network. BT has long talked about the possibility of using FWA (fixed wireless access) to support community scheme rollouts, where the cost of FTTC / FTTP may be too high for communities to match fund.
BT previously left the mobile telecoms market in 2001, selling off its interest in then 02 Mobile. Its acquisition of EE came at a time when two key shifts were happening in the telecoms landscape. Firstly, talk of solutions for the final 4 – 5% of non ‘NGA’ connected premises began to hot up, with the realisation that state-run ITTs, in their current form, were failing to provide cost-effective or commercially viable interventions for these very rural properties. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, interest in 5G development began to hot up.
The marketing campaigns’ enthusiasm put aside, this solution is far from revolutionary. Smaller altnets have long used external 4G antenna to deliver services to rural and urban-edge consumers, with deployments around Swindon being a notable success story. (It’s worth noting also that BDUK’s voucher code scheme has long provided subsidies to cover the cost of 4G broadband installation). The story is more interesting when considered alongside the December 2015 announcement that EE is to provide 4G services to 300,000 emergency services end users. As part of this contract award, EE committed to significantly increasing their 4G coverage, building over 500 new 4G sites and deploying lower 800Mhz spectrum at more than 3,800 sites. This deal, to significantly increase rural 4G coverage, makes delivering FWA to a large number of rural primes considerably more tenable.
For the consumer, this is a mixed success. 4G services will, for many, provide a viable route to getting much-improved connectivity and with the backing of the largest telecommunications provider in the UK. As with all 4G solutions however, the high cost of data and the susceptibility to high jitter, leave it far from ideal. This is an issue that is only going to get worse as traditional media broadcast methods are replaced by purely online offerings (Sky’s move away from deploying dishes being an example). It also means that the very rural properties where 4G coverage is never likely to reach will benefit little, and suffer much. Incentives for telecoms operators to bring infrastructure nearer to them will be fewer. Many of these premises will rely on Altnets to provide their services, but without investment in the backhaul services leveraged by these smaller providers the challenge to reach them, even for smaller, more agile players, will remain high.
The real key for FWA delivery over the mobile operators’ networks will come with the rollout and adoption of 5G services. Whilst critics often, correctly, cite that 5G’s limited range makes it non-viable for rural environments, this is not the case with FWA. Predominantly, the problem with 5G delivery distances is that of antenna gain and propagation through foliage and structures. Antenna mounted externally to the building and with a high gain should feasibly be able to deliver high speed, low latency solutions, at admirable distances. This we would expect to see forming part of EE’s inevitable 5G spectrum bid.
As USO looks likely to make its way through the legislator, and BT’s attempts to block it have so far been thwarted, 4G will provide a cost-effective way for the telcos to meet much of this obligation.
With EE’s network footprint, BT’s fibre prevalence and the advent of 5G for FWA, we expect to see this solution being a significant force in the rural broadband marketplace.