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EE Refarm UK 3G Spectrum Bands into Ultrafast 4G Mobile Broadband

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018 (1:10 pm) - Score 12,499
ee mobile tower mast uk

Mobile operator EE (BT) has today confirmed that they’ve begun the process of re-farming (converting) their existing 3G mobile services in the 2100MHz radio spectrum band, which means that they can instead be used to help boost 4G data (Mobile Broadband) speeds and reliability.

At present the existing LTE-Advanced (4G+) standard already supports Carrier Aggregation technology, which allows operators to combine spectrum from multiple different bands in order to improve data speeds (e.g. 2.6GHz, 1800MHz, 800MHz etc.). By re-farming the 2100MHz 3G band to 4G they will thus be able to support Five Carrier Aggregation (5CA) or the combination of five different bands at once.

Demand for mobile data is constantly on the rise and this is one way to help tackle that increase, which unsurprisingly means that the first locations to benefit will be “hotspots” of high demand (e.g. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Exeter, Hull, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast).

The operator plans to begin converting the 2100MHz band into 4G at more than 500 mobile towers over the next 6 months.

Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer business, said:

“Our customers want a fast and reliable 4G connection, and that’s what we’re working to give them. We are using the investment we made in 3G spectrum nearly 15 years ago to give customers today a great experience with the latest smartphones on 4G, and build our foundation for 5G in 2019.

We’re constantly evolving, and the customer experience of 5G will be dictated by the quality of the 4G network underneath.”

Many of the latest 4G Smartphones released during 2018, plus a few during 2017, can already support the use of 5CA. In theory this may also be enough to help support Gigabit (1000Mbps+) class LTE / 4G speeds, albeit only under ideal circumstances (most of the time users share capacity and so you’re unlikely to experience this in the real-world); plus you don’t strictly need 5CA for Gigabit speeds but it helps.

EE also hopes to become one of the first in the country to begin a limited commercial deployment of 5G or partial 5G services toward the end of 2019 (here), although the big roll-out won’t follow until Ofcom has released all of the needed spectrum in 2020 (not to mention the small matter of limited hardware support). The first 5G services are also more likely to be fixed wireless links instead of mobile ones and large-scale trials should start soon.

Finally, the operator claims that 3G usage on their UK network is “reducing rapidly“, not least since customers are increasingly making more of their calls over 4G (VoLTE) or WiFi (Wi-Fi Calling) based solutions.

NOTE: EE makes no mention of Gigabit speeds in their update, thus the mention above is just based on our own understanding of the market and 4G network evolution.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he is also the founder of ISPreview since 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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35 Responses
  1. chris conder

    All the cunning plan coming into play.
    corner mobile
    corner content
    throw openreach away for ofcom to pick up the pieces…
    masts round here are being fibred thanks to BT community partnerships and bduk funding for fttc on the routes to them… villages nowhere near masts don’t even get cabinets. Strange that.

    • NGA for all

      Chris,

      As long as the clawback is managed,this upside should be picked up there. It is a big if, as BT did not provide an update last quarter.

      Re-using those fibre paths in rural was part of the requirement, so it is good your seeing it. It should become the norm.

    • FibreFred

      I don’t understand this comment:

      “throw openreach away for ofcom to pick up the pieces…”

      You do understand that Openreach don’t own the network. They manage it.

    • Name

      @FibreFred: Who owns OpenReach?

    • FibreFred

      I know who owns it.

      I’m trying to understand the point of the comment

    • CarlT

      Not sure I get the relevance of this to spectrum refarming from 3G to 4G or, indeed, any references as background for these statements.

      Could you help someone with no idea about this stuff with some background?

      Ta.

  2. AnotherTim

    While upgrading urban areas first makes obvious commercial sense, from a purely selfish point of view I’d prefer them to upgrade masts in areas where 3G/4G is the only viable fast broadband.
    They could start with the mast I can see from my window. Please.

    • Tim

      It would be nice if OFCOM forced EE to provide unlimited 4G to those that can’t order FTTC. Also OFCOM should be trying to ensure that upgrades happen quicker across the country not years apart between urban and rural. In many cases it’s just a config change and no physical hardware change at masts (if the capacity is already at the mast).

    • 5G Infinity

      Yes the DCMS FITR document references serving the outer 10% first and then fixing the inner 90% (rural v urban in that order).

    • dave

      Tim, Three sell 100GB 4G data for £20, although i think you need a vpn to disguise the traffic or you are limited to 30GB. 100GB is quite a lot, not enough for me but still quite a lot. 5G will likely give people 300GB data plans for £30 or under i reckon.

  3. chris conder

    NGA, I agree that fibre paths should be used, but not to commercial masts covered up by community benefits, and where they have overbuilt altnets BT have no customers anyway, so there won’t be any clawback, all we’ve done is fund them with public money to feed their shareholders and deliver bonuses for bosses.

  4. Michael V

    It’s great more operators are refarming 2100 for LTE with Voice. I’ve spotted Three have been doing it this year with much of central Manchester covered. I’ve not seen 4Gvoice over 2100MHz in Cardiff yet.

    • Michael V

      I also think that 3G will be decommissioned before 2G. Especially with Vodafone as their IoT products & services use 2G band only. Usually referred to as NB-IOT. “Narrow band IoT”.

    • Simon

      really? I have noticed it in Cardiff for months. My OP5 used to use it and that was 6 months ago!

    • Michael V

      @simon. I live just outside the city in Dinas Powys, Vale of Glamorgan, I mostly travel to Pengham Green, not seen it there. I use LTE Discovery app, that shows band numbers. I should have the app active more often when around the city. Thanks!

    • Michael V

      @Simon. I know only phones from Three can use VoLTE on 800mhz [band 20] but does your One Plus connect to that Network at all? There was rumours that the OP5 could…

    • Chris

      NB-IoT is actually an LTE based technology,ie, 4G.
      But 3G services are being turned off quicker than 4G services by European operators anyway. 4G is far more spectrally efficient than 3G. More mbit for your MHz!

    • Michael V

      @Chris. You’re right, I know IoT is a LTE technology. Its just Devices that only need small amounts of data are capable of using 2G-EDGE. That’s where the ‘Narrow Band’ part came in.

  5. Phil

    So a very large number of handsets that are not 4G or not enabled for VoLTE, or are on PAYG with EE (which do not get WiFi calling or VoLTE) are going to find their signal disappearing for voice calls. Guess they call that progress.

    • Michael V

      EE have cherry picked phones & tariffs that can use VoLTE & WiFi calling to mostly pay monthly only. They really need to change this.
      No one will see 3G coverage or quality decrease. EE are using part of the 2100 band that they own that isn’t currently in use & also refarming a small percentage of what is used for 3G. It’s still very early days yet. There’s really nothing to worry about.

    • Tim

      Yes that is progress. Buy a new phone. Seriously you don’t expect a 17 year old technology to start being phased out?

      I bet you still use a floppy dic*. Lol

    • un4h731x0rp3r0m

      In regards to Phils comment and Tims follow up response…

      Buying a new phone would not help as Phil alludes to if you are on the EE network, using a PAYG tariff and using one of the MVNO which EE do not allow 4G on. Or one of the MVNO where EE do not allow their entire frequency range to be used (especially again on PAYG).

      So Phil is right in part and suggesting someone buy a new phone if they are in the position i have outlined in more detail will not help. For PAYG customers and some using other MVNO over EE it may be best they switch networks unless EE change things.

      Having more 4G is all well and good, but if you are in an area which can not get a good signal from it having a network which has good 3G and even 2G coverage is nice…. At least that way you can errr make a phone call on your errr Phone.

    • Chris

      They’re not shutting down all 3G (yet), just refarming now underused 3G bands and moving it to LTE.
      But a complete shutdown of 3G will only be a couple years away… Plenty of time to upgrade

    • Phil

      @Tim

      To receive and make voice calls on handsets we need 2G or 3G, because 4G was rushed to market as data only, it didn’t have an agreed technological solution for voice calls. This is why for the vast majority of handsets they drop down to 3G or 2G when we receive or make a voice call.

      4G, due to it’s data only nature, only supports Voice over IP, and this is referred to as VoLTE when we talk about voice calls over 4G, and has only recently been introduced (last year or so). This needs specific support in the handsets hardware and firmware. EE is ahead of others when it comes to support for calls over 4G, however with a few exceptions, you will need to have a new device bought direct from EE to get it and be on a pay monthly plan direct with EE, otherwise its calls on 3G or 2G only. If someone is on a marginal signal for 3G and 2G with no ability to use VoLTE, and the 3G is re-farmed to 4G, suddenly it’s even harder to make a voice call.

      A 17 year old technology or not, 3G universally supports voice calls on all 3G handsets on all networks. Voice calls on 4G are available to some, but by no means all.

  6. Meadmodj

    Ofcom may not dictate the technologies used by the mobile operators only their coverage obligations but it has to be unacceptable for the UK not to have clear 2G and 3G cessation plans. The issue isn’t necessarily the phones but other devices using M2M which may take longer to upgrade for those that still use them.

  7. Gregory

    Are EE going to offer unlimited data,hmm I don’t think so

  8. Steve Scott

    It’s interesting moving from Vodafone (which seemed to have lte more or less everywhere) to three (who seem to have lte only in congested spots, presumably where they need to be spectrum efficient)

    Very different approaches to asset sweating, and frankly perfectly adequate for general smartphone usage.

  9. Ross

    All well and good reusing the 3G to create 4G. But EE is dire where I live (struggles to get even 2G). Whereas O2 is full 4G.

  10. dave

    I would rather they use 2G frequencies and switch them over to 4G as most phones in use today support 3G calls/texts/data.

    • Michael V

      EE’s 2G network runs on 1800MHz. EE could refarm it for Voice over LTE but they haven’t. Ofcom has allowed refarming of most bands to be used for 3G & 4G by all the MNOs,/ Mobile Network Operators.

  11. CarlT

    Cool.

    Hopefully data costs on EE will drop from insane to merely expensive.

  12. A_Builder

    2G will be around for a long time due to smart meters etc

    3G has had its day: can’t keep everything for ever.

    More bandwidth etc on 4G is a great thing. And hopefully better support for MIMO and therefore better throughput and penetration.

    Better backhaul is a big plus and if it is wholesaled, as it should be, then this is a shot in the arm for the small Alt Nets doing great FTTP work in remote areas.

    • Michael V

      4G LTE will certainly be deployed completely thru 2100mhz. 3G-UMTS has been a headache for the operators, even HSPA+ which sits on top of it. One thing that gets over looked, is LTE connections can connect more devices to one cell as data packets are managed better & are smaller than 3G. I’m trying to find the right wording but I can’t think of the proper term right now, but you know what I mean

  13. Michael V

    Anyway, with 2G, 3G, 4G & the incoming 5G-NR, one technology needs to be decommissioned. Operators need to stop selling 3G only phones & only sell VoLTE devices. Three has made the move already. It’s fine for me as I’m a complete tech nerd so I know these things. BUT, they must educate their customers & I don’t see them doing that. I see this from friends and family who have recently upgraded but know nothing of what type of networks their phones are capable of using. 3G/LTE/VoLTE…

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