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3UK to bring DC-HSPA+ to 80% of UK by April

Smallest cellco is hedging its bets, focusing on HSPA+ in case it ends up with weak LTE position, while Ofcom gears up for '5G'


Published: 19 November, 2012

READ MORE: Spectrum | UK | Hutchison 3G (UK) | HSDPA | LTE

The UK has suddenly become a hotbed of 4G activity after a period of stalemate. Leading cellco EE (formerly Everything Everywhere) has switched on LTE in several cities, the new spectrum auction is due in early 2013, and now 3UK has outlined a major HSPA+ upgrade plan. At the same time, regulator Ofcom acknowledges spectrum is running short, and has talked up its own roadmap for '5G'.

Hutchison's 3UK unit says it has signed up more than a million net new customers in the past year, and credits the roll-out of its 'Ultrafast' network, which runs on dual-carrier HSPA+ networks, which have a peak downlink speed of 42Mbps. Many European carriers are investing as heavily in HSPA upgrades as in LTE, often using the two technologies in parallel, with LTE often reserved for dense urban areas or, conversely, rural broadband coverage in the digital dividend band. This pattern differs markedly from the wide area LTE strategies seen in the US and parts of Asia, and reflects the heavy European investment in HSPA.

The rapidly evolving HSPA+ roadmap is important to cellcos like 3UK, which will not have spectrum for LTE until next year. EE has moved early because it is the only holder of 1.8GHz GSM frequencies, which are an increasingly popular LTE option worldwide. 3UK will gain about 25% of EE's 1.8GHz spectrum, which it will also be able to refarm for 4G after the original owner has vacated it, but in the meantime it is focusing heavily on HSPA+.

This is particularly important as the fourth cellco fears that it will be in a weak position to get significant holdings in the auction, especially in the 800MHz digital dividend band, despite certain safeguards provided by Ofcom. In some markets, such as Germany, the fourth player has missed out on the low frequency licences. And in some countries, like Sweden, Denmark and Italy Hutchison 3 has chosen to acquire less popular TDD spectrum to increase its capacity, and the same could be seen in the UK sale.

In the meantime, 3 says 39% of the UK population now has access to its DC-HSPA services, with coverage currently focused on the 50 largest cities and towns, though the cellco targets coverage of 50% by year and 80% by next April.

CEO Dave Dyson commented: "We have led the adoption of smartphones in the UK by giving our customers great coverage, fast speeds and compelling price plans. These network improvements are designed to maintain our position as the fastest growing UK mobile operator."

Meanwhile, Ofcom says it is already planning for '5G'. In particular it aims to free up spectrum in 700MHz - the digital dividend band in the Americas and most of Asia - for mobile broadband. The regulator predicts mobile data traffic could ruse by 80 times between 2012 and 2030, having seen it double between 2011 and 2012. The 700MHz band is currently used by digital terrestrial television, but Ofcom believes harmonized spectrum planning throughout Europe will enable new frequencies to be released without the need for a second TV switchover.

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