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By: MarkJ - 18 March, 2011 (11:50 AM)
mobile broadband logoo2 uk broadband logoMobile operator O2 UK has today given a significant coverage and speed boost to its Mobile Broadband services after becoming the first MNO in the country to re-purpose its existing 900MHz (2G voice) radio spectrum for 3G (i.e. 3G900) data connectivity.

The move follows a government direction to make the change in December 2010, which Ofcom promptly granted (here). The effort is part of the governments wider Britain's Superfast Broadband Future strategy and allows existing licensees (i.e. O2 and Vodafone UK) to repurpose both 900MHz and 1800MHz for 3G.

The advantage of doing this is obvious because 900MHz (voice) services are already well deployed and able to reach some locations that traditional 3G bands cannot. It also means that fewer base stations would be needed and thus saves money.

Naturally O2 has been quick to capitalise by switching-on a new superfast 3G network across London this week via its new 3G900 layer. O2 has also deployed 3G900 services in key cities across the UK, including Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester, with other cities set to follow in the coming months.

Nigel Purdy, Chief Technology Officer for Telefónica O2 UK, said:

"This 3G900 switch-on is the latest in a series of network enhancements for O2, and is a first for the UK and Telefónica. We’ve acted quickly to bring the benefits of 3G over 900MHz spectrum to our customers and we’re thrilled with the results. Quite simply, on O2’s network, more customers can use more data, and experience it quicker.

We invest the equivalent of over £1m a day, every day, in our network, which is used to deliver technologies in a way that goes beyond traditional cellular infrastructure; providing access to a new range of ‘smarter’ services. Our strategy is to intelligently layer our network to give our customers connection to 2G, 3G, HSPA+,LTE and Wi-Fi, seamlessly, simply and at speed."

So what of the reported improvements? O2 claims to have used "rigorous customer experience testing" and discovered that its customers in 3G900 areas are now able to receive 30% faster mobile data speeds than before. Network capacity has also increased by 50%, albeit mostly as a result of fresh investment.

In directly related news, SIRODA has released the results of its UK mobile network operator survey, which compared the data speeds of all five operators. The tests claim that, between October 2010 and January 2011, O2 offered the best data experience in 12 out of 13 cities. On average, web page access on the O2 network was delivered in 1.4 seconds, over three times quicker than the slowest operator.

However, not everybody will be happy with today's news. Despite Ofcom's claim that the move was unlikely to result in a material distortion of competition, rival Three (3) still feels that the regulator has given both O2 and Vodafone an "unfair competitive advantage". Ofcom will need to address this by ensuring that the 2012 auction of new spectrum is conducted fairly.

We are extremely pleased to see today's development, although it should be noted that the whole idea of allowing operators to use 900MHz for 3G was to help improve the coverage in rural areas. Rolling 900MHz out in cities is all well and good but it's somewhat missing the original point. Future auctions may require Ofcom to seek additional assurances so as to better facilitate this.

Meanwhile O2 UK claims that its 3G (HSPA+ 900 / 2100 MHz) network currently provides voice and high speed data services of up to 14.4Mbps (21Mbps in the coming months), to over 84% of the UK population. Still, many real-world customers will only receive a couple of Megabits.
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