O2 1800MHz Spectrum And Wi-Fi Offloading Will Boost Urban 4G Capacity

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O2 details plans to re-farm spectrum, upgrade Wi-Fi network, rollout VoWi-Fi and VoLTE and improve rural 4G

O2 is to boost the capacity of its 4G network in urban areas by re-farming 1800MHz spectrum and enabling automatic offloading to the O2 Wi-Fi network and has also promised to expand rural LTE coverage.

So far, O2 has only used the 800MHz spectrum it won in 2013 for its LTE network and is the only major operator not to own any 2.6GHz bandwidth.

The 800MHz band offers superior range but the 2.6GHz airwaves offer much better capacity, making it ideal for highly populated locations, but 1800MHz has formed the basis for EE’s 4G service.

Boosting capacity

O2 4GO2 will start rolling out the 1800MHz band in London before expanding to other cities later this year. An added bonus is that older iPhones will be able to access O2 4G for the first time.

The operator will also upgrade its Wi-Fi hotspots, located in retailers like Costa Coffee, Toni & Guy and All Bar One so O2 customers will be automatically offloaded onto Wi-Fi if it is believed they will have a better Internet experience.

O2 CTO Brendan O’Reilly denied that re-farming spectrum and Wi-Fi offloading highlighted a weakness caused by a lack of 2.6GHz spectrum, stating the company had learned from other markets about boosting capacity and that Wi-Fi simply added another layer of capacity on top of its cellular infrastructure.

“Wi-Fi Extra is about giving customers experience,” he said.

Seamless calling

O2 is also testing native Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) and hopes to launch early next year alongside its Voice over LTE (VoLTE) service, making it easier for customers to make a call in areas of poor signal and improving call quality.

VoWi-Fi has been available to customers through the Tu Go application since February 2013, but O’Reilly said that it wanted to get the customer experience right and ensure users can switch between LTE and Wi-Fi without the call dropping.

“It’s imperative to us to launch both services at the same time,” he said. “Seamless transition is the killer application.”

Rural focus

O2’s 4G network currently has 63 percent indoor 4G coverage and 75 percent outdoor coverage and as per the terms of its 800MHz spectrum licence must provide an LTE service to 98 percent of the UK population by 2017.

O’Reilly said its network modernisation programme, launched two years ago, was boosting 2G and 3G coverage as well as 4G, and that attention would turn towards rural areas now the major population centres had been covered.

“For the first two years it was about towns and cities,” he said. “2015 is the year we go from urban to rural. We will start giving 4G to some customers who don’t have usable [fixed] broadband.”

100 percent coverage?

O2 said its programme of improvements hadn’t been influenced too much by the recent agreement reached by all four operators with the UK government to invest a combined £5 billion in network infrastructure to avoid a ‘national roaming network’.

It says there is plenty of overlap between its population coverage requirement and its new landmass coverage obligation and that it was already spending £600 million on its network each year.

But it does not envisage a day where 100 percent of the UK had 4G, with chief operating officer Derek McManus echoing Openreach CEO Joe Garner’s comments about it being very difficult to reach the final one percent of people, becdause they don’t even have electricity and water.

“You’d very quickly get into commercial suicide,” said McManus of the economic challenges of achieving 100 percent coverage.

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