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"If you ain't first, you're last." -- Ricky Bobby

The UK's largest mobile network, Everything Everywhere Limited. (EE), will be switching on this month in London, England.  This network is expected to be six times as fast at downloads as the fastest current U.S. LTE network.

Initially, the 4G "Advanced" LTE network will only be available to businesses as LTE-served 802.11ac hotspots, but by mid-2014 EE hopes to make available to its 28 million UK subscribers compatible smartphones and tablets from its OEM partners.

I. The Promise

The transition to 4G has been a story of a simple concept turned confusing by technological struggles.  In mid-2010 the industry's top players from around the global worked together to develop a faster, "fourth generation" (4G) technology to replace the aging third generation (3G) technologies, which were largely dominated by GSM and CDMA.

The industry published [PDF] a plan for a Long Term Evolution (LTE) network -- a network which would deliver 300 Mbps (Megabits per second), uplink peak rates of 75 Mbps, and transfer latencies of less than 5 ms. Precise implementations of what was to be defined as "LTE" diverged slightly from there with the U.S. carriers building network on a hodgepodge of 20 MHz bands of spectrum around 700, 800, 1900, 1700, and 2100 MHz which were collectively dubbed "advanced wireless spectrum" (AWS) by marketing types.  Overseas most adopted 2.5 GHz (e.g. South America) or 2.6 GHz (Canada, EU).

But at the end of the day, spectrum differences aside, all 4G LTE operates on more or less the same technology and the same underlying E-UTRAN spec -- a big reason why LTE devices are much more compatible (newer modems can cover virtually every LTE band in use worldwide).

4G LTE
You promised us fast! [Image Source: Android Authority]

While foreign LTE networks began popping up by 2011, Verizon Communications, Inc.'s (VZ) subsidiary Verizon Wireless (then co-owned by Vodafone Group plc (LON:VOD), a top UK telecom) was among the earliest adopters of "LTE" in the world, flipping on its own network in 2010.

Since then Verizon -- the largest U.S. carrier -- has adopted a deliberate, plodding rollout, to its current coverage levels, where most Americans have access to LTE.

II. Close, But No Cigar

But during this process there was just a minor caveat -- Verizon wasn't debuting full speed LTE (because it likely could not due so from a technical and cost perspective).  Recent tests have shown that Verizon's network today at best delivers around 200 ms (at best) first byte response times, 10-15 Mbps average (50-60 Mbps peak) download speeds, and 4-8 Mbps average upload speeds.  In short, after three years of deployment, Verizon has strong LTE coverage, but only about a sixth of the [maximum possible] spec (or forty times as slow, when it comes to the latency) [due to technical limitations -- see below].

[Ed. -- As Belegost kindly points out, Verizon did not have the available spectrum to deploy "full speed" LTE (even if devices had the antennas -- which current phones lack.  Verizon has 10 MHz of spectrum that it can operate on for LTE in a 13 MHz LTE-compatible spectrum band [PDF] it owns -- and is thus limited to under 100 Mbps (I'm unsure exactly which scheme its devices use, but speeds for 10 MHz are listed here.]

When it comes to latency, maybe this was [likely not noticeable] forgivable.  After all, 200 ms isn't that much longer of a perceived wait than 5 ms to the human brain, which typically perceives the world in the double-digit hertz range (10-1000 ms per event).  But the speed difference when it came to large size content like larger apps or streaming video the download speeds are a bit more noticeable.

Also noticeable was Verizon's decision to not initially adopt voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) -- a part of the promised LTE spec that no American LTE carriers currently provide.  Verizon (and later others) opted to only let data fly across its 3G network, relegating voice traffic to its legacy 3G network.

Verizon LTE
Verizon's LTE coverage is good, but slow. [Image Source: Android Spin]

Verizon took a lot of fire for advertising its below-spec implementation (which was even worse in earlier days) as "4G LTE".  Some carriers argued it would be better to brand so-called 3.5G (mature 3G) technologies like HSPA+ as "4G" as they were nearly as fast as Verizon's try at LTE, while having better coverage.  

This approach is pretty egregious from a technical standpoint, as 4G refers to a set of standards, and while slower than promised Verizon's LTE was at least based on those standards.  But the 3.5G/4G muddled mess embraced at the time by AT&T, Inc. (T) and T-Mobile USA (a Deutsche Telekom subsidiary) was somewhat understandable from a usability perspective.

HSPA+
When 3G is 4G. [Image Source: AT&T]

To be fair, many foreign carriers faced similar struggles, though a number of early foreign LTE networks proved closer to the ambitious [maximum] spec than Verizon, a somewhat surprising outcome given the supposed American "technical dominance" in the telecommunications industry.

III. Full-Fledged LTE (FINALLY)

With Advanced LTE (not to be confused with VoLTE) "5G" fast approaching with faster promised speeds and new technical implementation details, there's a lot of pressure for carriers worldwide to step up their game.  While it's increasing looking that the new spec will arrive in the U.S. without even a full-fledge first-generation LTE network in place, in Europe some carriers -- most notably Orange and Deutsche Telekom -- are heeding the call.

London 4G LTE
London, UK, the largest city in the EU will be the site of the new trial. [Image Source: Unknown]

For Orange and Deutsche Telekom, London -- the most populous city in the EU – appears to be the ideal trial site for a mature first generation LTE network.  The new network will use two bands of spectrum -- 20 MHz in the 1.8 GHz range, and 20 MHz in the 2.6 GHz range.  This so-called "carrier aggregation" is enabled by carriers sharing unused spectrum in different bands to boost aggregate throughput.  In the U.S. this technology is expected to arrive -- eventually -- but spectrum hoarding and an opposition to inter-carrier cooperation has stalled its arrival.

Deployment will begin in East London's "Tech City" region.  The first devices on the network will be CAT6 hotspot routers from Huawei Technologies Comp. (SHE:002502) which supports the latest 802.11ac wireless spec and connections to up to twenty devices.  The modem will have peak downloads speeds of 300 Mbps (the full rate promised by the LTE spec), while the hotspot connected devices should receive data at around 200 Mbps (peak rate).

Huawei router
A Huawei router. [Image Source: The Hacker News]

Those rates should be a boon for business and open new opportunities as before the only way to get that fast data rates was to try to find faster wired connections or use a satellite truck and 802.11ac.  Traders at the London Stock Exchange are salivating at the prospect of pulling down data on the go at these faster rates.

EE CEO Olaf Swantee proclaims:

Today we are introducing the next age of 4G mobile technology to the UK.  Our existing 4G network delivers incredible mobile data speeds and covers millions of people across the country, but we never stand still. We know that mobile data usage is going to keep increasing, and rapidly so.

Our analysts predict that data usage will grow significantly over the next three years. In fact, our trend-mapping shows that data usage is set to rise by 750 per cent in that period, as consumers and companies conduct more of their business and lives on-line.

The network we’re switching on today in Tech City uses the spectrum that we acquired in the Ofcom spectrum auction earlier this year, and is the first part of an infrastructure that can meet the future demands of an increasingly data-hungry nation, enabling us to stay one-step ahead of the demand.

The new network will go live to consumers in H1 2014, with mobile hotspots, and in H2 2014 with smartphones/tablets.  In preparation for that rollout many top UK content providers are already working to leverage this new speed.  The BBC plans to bump its mobile video player (iPlayer) from the current rate 5 Mbps to 20 Mbps.

Aside from slower rates, the additional bad news for Americans is that more market confusion is likely in store.  U.S. carriers already appear to be confusing VoLTE as "Advanced LTE"; it wouldn't be surprising for them to call full LTE "5G" or some equally misleading title.  Prepare yourselves.

Source: EE [press release]





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