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Wireless Infrastructure Newsletter

Carriers will harness 3G spectrum to reach gigabit LTE October 05 2015

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Almost every week brings another development, by a vendor or operator, to increase the capabilities of LTE, and increasingly those innovations will find their way onto the 5G roadmap too. The UK's EE took its LTE technology to the Gigabit Europe show, not an event that would, until recently, have been associated with wireless networks.

At LightReading's Gigabit Europe show, EE discussed plans to pilot gigabit LTE services before moving towards 5G from 2020. That would mean a sixfold increase in speed compared to EE's current peak of 150Mbps, which itself required carrier aggregation (of 20 MHz carriers in the 1.8 GHz and 2.6 GHz bands) to achieve. The operator has already trialled triband aggregation to get to peak speeds of 400Mbps and is likely to commercialize that technology in certain areas next year.

Paul Ceely, EE's head of network strategy, told the attendees: "We think 4G can get you to 1Gbps and are looking to run a pilot of that," though he did not give timescales - though it would clearly be a pre-5G effort, so presumably in the 2016-2019 period. Ceely said gigabit peak download rates would require a combination of carrier aggregation across as many as five carriers, and MIMO smart antenna arrays. The carrier has been heavily focused on 'Super Macro' developments, aimed at enhancing the coverage and capacity of its macro LTE-Advanced network in existing spectrum before moving on to densification with small cells. This contrasts with some MNOs, like SKT in Korea, which are pursuing densification first.

The high speed LTE network could compete with fixed broadband providers, or provide an adjunct to their services, in underserved rural areas, or among users who want to get set-up very quickly or move around frequently (this largely youthful user base is currently targeted by the Relish service from UK Broadband, which runs on TD-LTE in 3.5 GHz). The latter scenario is more likely given that EE will, regulators permitting, be part of fixed-line incumbent BT next year.

The gigabit network would need to involve EE's 3G spectrum in 2.1 GHz as well as its existing 4G frequencies (refarmed 2G spectrum in 1.8 GHz plus 2.6 GHz and 800 MHz), and future options could include 700 MHz and 2.3 GHz when those come up for auction. The 3G bands are increasingly being used for LTE around the world, and deployments in the main one, 2.1 GHz, have almost doubled in the past year, according to the GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association).

In the early years of LTE, deployments mainly tapped newly auctioned spectrum or 2G bands, and some operators have already turned off 2G services altogether, like Korea Telecom, or have a firm timeline to do so, like AT&T. But some carriers are also looking at options to defocus on 3G, especially in countries where 3G deployment came late or did not extend very far, notably China, India and some African nations. Here, there is a logic to racing straight to 4G for mobile broadband, and even in strong 3G countries, many carriers are halting further expansion and starting to use excess 2.1 GHz spectrum for LTE-A.

Although W-CDMA/HSPA 3G standards will dominate this band for years to come, the GSA said regulators are helping operators to take a flexible approach in 2.1 GHz by allowing technology neutrality.

In total, 36% of LTE devices work on the 2.1 GHz band, compared to 28% in 2014, says the GSA, and there are 1,185 devices available from 142 vendors. The Association found that 15 operators in 11 countries have launched LTE on the 2.1GHz band, double the year-ago figure. Alan Hadden, VP of Research at GSA, said: "The number of LTE2100 compatible devices more than doubled over the past year (118% higher). Band 1 is the third most supported band for LTE devices, following 1800 MHz (Band 3) and 2.6 GHz (Band 7)."

Orange mulls Bouygues bid, UK IPO June 09 2014

As the French company reshuffles its assets to maximize value, it may bid for France's third cellco, and seek IPO for EE venture

By Caroline Gabriel

French incumbent Orange has been weighing up its subsidiaries around the world, divesting some and acquiring others as it looks to concentrate its efforts where it can generate the best results. Much of its M&A effort in recent times has focused on Africa, but now its eyes are on its European home region too. It sold its Austrian unit to Hutchison 3, but it may mount a bid for France's third cellco, Bouygues, and consider a partial IPO of its UK joint venture, EE.

The French market has been thoroughly shaken up by a price war initiated by new entrant Free Mobile, and second cellco SFR recently agreed to be acquired by cableco Numericable. Bouygues lost out in the race for SFR, and now looks weak and casting around for new partners. It has been linked with Free itself, with MVNO Virgin Mobile, and now with market leader Orange.

Although competition regulators remain generally wary of deals which reduce the number of cellcos - one reason why SFR's parent Vivendi chose Numericable over Bouygues - French players feel there is no room for more than three MNOs in their beleaguered market, and the older operators are trying to build up scale to see off Free.

Orange has hired bankers Lazard and Credit Suisse to look into a possible bid for Bouygyes, reported Reuters.

Meanwhile, other reports said that Orange and its partner Deutsche Telekom would revisit the idea of a public offering for their successful UK joint venture, EE. That could see the company's shares listed on the London stock exchange later this year.

An IPO, or sale of a stake to an additional partner, have been discussed since EE was formed (when it was called Everything Everywhere). This could boost the finances of the debt-laden parents, as they look to invest heavily in 4G networks and emerging markets, while giving EE more freedom of action. CEO Olaf Swantee is known to want more autonomy from the owners.

Orange's CFO Gervais Pellissier told Bloomberg that a stock market listing is still the preferred option, although the owners have not ruled out other choices if a suitable offer is made.

Swantee has been asked to "position EE either on dividend or return or growth," within the next six months, Pellissier told reporters in Paris. "We will decide when we return from vacation." One concern will be the increasing level of competition in the UK, with BT set to re-enter the mobile market and Vodafone investing in wireline and quad play assets. Plans for a previous stock market listing were put on hold earlier this year.

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