Adding 4G to the shopping list

30 OCT 2012

The good people at EE yesterday let me visit one of their new flagship retail stores in London, a day prior to both the shop and the UK operator’s new 4G-LTE network opening to the general public. Accessing the network on an iPhone 5 under the watchful eye of the store’s manager, I queued up a trailer for the latest James Bond film on YouTube. As the video loaded, I instinctively moved to tap at the play button to begin streaming without waiting for the necessary buffering. There was no need. The HD video had already loaded and was playing before my finger had touched the screen. “Everyone does that,” said the store manager, with a grin.

I later used a speed testing app that clocked the network at a lightning-fast 46.4 Mb/s on the downlink and a (less impressive) 6 Mb/s on the uplink. That’s about four times faster downloads than I get on my cable broadband at home, and over twenty times speedier than the measly 2 Mb/s usually possible on a 3G network in central London.

Of course, with the new network at that stage not officially open for public use, I was likely to be one of only a handful of users on the cell. EE has said that typical 4G speeds will be in the more modest 8-12 Mb/s range. Those that require more will be nudged toward the operator’s new fixed-line fibre offering, which claims average speeds of 58.5 Mb/s.

For those in the industry, today’s launch – the first commercial 4G-LTE network to go live in the UK – is seen as a landmark event. It will also be a relief to politicians, who see 4G as a vital part of the country’s digital economy, but had to strike an eleventh hour deal with rival operators to ensure EE’s launch wasn’t scuppered by legal action.

However, it remains to be seen if UK consumers will embrace 4G with enthusiasm. Those old enough to remember the move to 3G a decade ago will rightly be sceptical of claims of a great digital leap forward; many will also be put off by the disappearance of unlimited data plans as operators use the move to 4G to cap data use. EE’s cheapest consumer tariff when buying a 4G phone costs £36 per month, but allows only a miserly 500MB of data use.

The drive to educate consumers on 4G is therefore an important part of EE’s retail strategy. It is doubtful many punters know that EE – or Everything Everywhere as it is mercifully no longer known – is the parent of well-known brands Orange and T-Mobile. But that could soon change as EE refits an estimated 700 stores to reflect the new branding; the store I visited on Oxford Street (pictured) was a former Orange shop and one of several locations EE will have on London’s main shopping drag.

The operator says the overhaul represents “one of the biggest and fastest transformations in UK retail history.” It also claims to have spent “millions” training up a team of 10,000 to staff its stores, call centres and online support.

One advantage for operators such as EE that are, in global terms, migrating to 4G relatively late, is that they avoid the ‘chicken and egg’ issue in terms of devices. While early 4G operators were unable to offer any compatible phones at all – only mobile broadband kit such as dongles – EE is able to sell its 4G services on the back of the latest flagship smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung and Nokia.

The new EE shops will organise its devices around the four main smartphone ecosystems – iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry – with staff specialising in specific handset types. Only 4G devices will be offered under the EE brand, the rest remaining as Orange or T-Mobile, though neither of these brands were particularly prominent in the store I visited.

EE’s 4G launch in 11 major UK cities today comes at least six months before rivals will be in a position to do similar. Its two closest rivals, O2 and Vodafone, will acquire 4G spectrum at different bands to EE (800MHz, 2.6GHz) at auction early next year and have struck a deal to share the cost of network build-out. Smaller rival 3 is to get a sizable chunk of EE’s precious 1800MHz airwaves (a prior condition of the T-Mobile and Orange merger), which will end EE’s de facto exclusive on offering a flavour of 4G compatible with the iPhone.

The UK’s very first 4G operator therefore needs to move fast if it is to capitalise on its first-mover advantage. Giving its high-street stores a facelift is not a bad place to start.

Matt Ablott

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members