EE’s UK network tests push LTE speeds to 410 Mbps

U.K. carrier Everything Everywhere has managed to squeeze a 410 Mbps LTE connection out of a 4G trial, generating speeds nearly 50 percent faster than its new souped-up “4G+” network in London. We’re still a couple of years away from such raw speeds in the wild, but these tests show what’s in store for consumers as the mobile industry takes up new LTE-Advanced technologies.

EE had plenty of help from [company]Qualcomm[/company], which builds the cellular modems inside of smartphones and tablets, and its network supplier Huawei. The companies supplied device and network technology that supports a new iteration of the LTE standard called Category 9, which uses a technique called carrier aggregation to bond together LTE transmissions in disparate frequency bands to create a kind of super-connection.

Many carriers around the world already have begun using carrier aggregation to tie together two LTE transmissions, but Category 9 chips will combine the bandwidth of three different frequency channels, creating a downlink up to 60 MHz wide that could potentially support speeds up to 450 Mbps. EE has already used carrier aggregation to build a 40 MHz network, but Category 9 gear is allowing it to tack on an additional 15 MHz of bandwidth in the 2.6 GHz band.

We’ll likely see other trials of the technology in the coming year, and not just in Europe and Asia. Though U.S. operators have been slow to adopt carrier aggregation, they’re deploying new 4G networks all over the frequency map. Both [company]Verizon[/company] and [company]AT&T[/company] now have second and third LTE networks in the Advanced Wireless Service and PCS bands. Meanwhile, [company]Sprint[/company] has a boatload of spectrum allocated for its new Spark 4G service. It just needs carrier aggregation to tie all of those frequencies together.

FCC mobile competition report once again dodges its key question

Another year, another report from the Federal Communications Commission on the state of competition in the U.S. mobile industry, and as has been the case in the last four years, the FCC didn’t actually reach any conclusion on whether that industry is competitive.

Instead the FCC just presented the facts it gathered over 2013 and the first half of 2014: More consolidation has eliminated big regional operators like MetroPCS and Leap Wireless as independent providers and put more subscribers and revenue into the hands of the Big Four (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint), which accounted for 96 percent of the U.S. market.

The report (pdf) noted that while 99.9 percent of the population lived in census blocks with at least one mobile carrier providing coverage, the number of overall service choices for consumers is in decline. The percentage of people with a choice beyond the Big Four was only 22.8 percent, though the report did find that 91.4 percent of the population did have access to at least four different carriers. While carrier choice may be shrinking, the report also found that new technologies like LTE are expanding to further corners of the country, giving consumers more service options.

The FCC claimed that it can’t draw any single conclusion about whether the overall wireless market is competitive or uncompetitive since there are so many other factors that go into such judgment beyond those it analyzes in its reports. That may be true, but it also means the report can mean anything anyone wants it to be.

For years consumer advocacy groups have want to the FCC to come down more strongly on the issue since its view on the state of competition would have a big impact on the big mergers and buyouts that wind up in front or regulators. Meanwhile, the mobile industry takes the FCC’s lack of conclusion as a sign that the market is plenty competitive after all. For instance, here’s the statement CTIA VP of Regulatory Affairs Scott Bergmann issued after the report was released:

“The FCC’s report yet again proves that America’s wireless users enjoy a variety of choices, from carriers to service plans to devices. According to both the FCC’s report released today and more recent figures on the competitive landscape of America’s wireless industry, 97 percent of Americans may choose from at least three different carriers while a previous report said only 15 percent of wired users may choose from at least three different providers. With more than 700 different smartphone plans offered by the four national carriers, and more than 790 unique handset models to choose from, it’s no surprise that the Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Bill Baer said that when the agency looked ‘long and hard at the wireless industry,’ it found ‘the [wireless] market is thriving and consumers are benefiting from the current competitive dynamic.’”


Iliad’s Xavier Niel buys Orange Switzerland, growing his empire

French telecom tycoon Xavier Niel may have seen his offers for T-Mobile US rebuffed, but it looks like he’s going to get his hands on a mobile carrier after all. Niel’s private holding company NJJ Capital is buying Orange Switzerland for €2.3 billion (U.S. $2.8 billion) and expects to close the deal in the first quarter after getting regulatory approval.

This deal is a bit different from the [company]T-Mobile[/company] bid, since Neil is buying it direct through private equity. Over the summer, French ISP [company]Iliad[/company], which Neil founded and controls, offered to buy Deutsche Telekom’s controlling interest in T-Mobile US, but [company]DT[/company] and T-Mobile turned it down.

Niel has had more luck on Europe where he bought Monaco Telecom from [company]Cable and Wireless Communications[/company] in April. Orange Switzerland, however, is a far bigger prize, and ironically it bears the name of one of Iliad’s biggest competitors in France. Orange Switzerland isn’t part of the [company]Orange[/company] Group anymore. Orange sold its Swiss operations to Apax Partners in 2012 after Apax won a bidding war that included – you guessed it – Xavier Niel. There have also been reports that Iliad is interested in buying French mobile competitor Boygues Telecom, though Niel has downplayed them.

There’s no word yet on what Niel will do with the Swiss mobile carrier if and when the deal closes. In France, Iliad’s Free Mobile has set off a price war, driving down mobile rates across the country. We might see the same thing across France’s alpine border.

T-Mobile pushes LTE to the outskirts of 4 cities

T-Mobile’s 4G network may not have the geographical reach of Verizon’s, but T-Mobile has started taking the first steps to get there. In conjunction with its big rollover data announcement on Tuesday, T-Mobile revealed that its new LTE network on the 700 MHz band is now live in and outside of Cleveland, Colorado Springs, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

[company]T-Mobile[/company] has offered LTE services in those cities since 2013, but by tapping into new 700 MHz frequencies it bought from Verizon, it’s been able to create a higher-coverage, better-performing network. T-Mobile’s main LTE network is up in the 1700 MHz/2100 MHz band, but lower bands can propagate further, letting signals punch through walls and travel further in suburban and rural areas.

The big knock on T-Mobile is that its coverage has always been so poor compared to [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Verizon[/company]. That’s a comparison T-Mobile wants to nullify as this new network gets rolled out, T-Mobile CEO John Legere said in a call with media Tuesday.

“I can’t tell you the exact month, but I can tell you that we won’t stop until we have a complete network,” Legere said.

CTO Neville Ray said that T-Mobile is using the spectrum to build an overlay in metro areas as well as expand the edges of its 4G coverage much further outside of cities than it has in the past. For example, in Washington, D.C., T-Mobile has used 700 MHz to go well beyond the Beltway, expanding into western suburbs and even outlying rural areas. Ray estimated that the upgrade has increased T-Mo’s LTE coverage by 30 to 40 percent in the D.C. region alone.

Today T-Mobile’s LTE systems cover 260 million people, but the 700 MHz upgrade will put 300 million people under its 4G umbrella. Most of that will be accomplished by bringing mobile broadband to the regions between cities it’s typically served only with 2G networks, Ray added.

Ray also said that T-Mobile’s new higher-capacity wideband LTE network is now available in 121 cities, including the newly launched New York City network. Wideband LTE T-Mobile increases 4G speeds and capacity by 50 percent in most cases, and in some cities it’s doubling bandwidth.

T-Mobile intros Data Stash, a rollover plan for unused gigabytes

T-Mobile is flouting one of the biggest taboos of the mobile industry: The monthly data allotment. T-Mobile CEO John Legere on Tuesday announced a new program called Data Stash, which allows you to roll over unused data each month into a kind of 4G piggy bank and use it for up to a year if you exceed your normal data plan in a given billing period.

Typically you buy a mobile data plan that comes with a set number of gigabytes or megabytes each month, but whatever you have left over at the end of the billing cycle disappears into the ether. That’s left consumers with two equally unattractive propositions, Legere told Yahoo’s David Pogue in a webcast interview. Customers either lowball their monthly data usage and wind up paying overage fees or they overestimate their data use and often wind up with leftover gigabytes each month, Legere said.

Data Stash will let customers bank that unused data each month. After a year, saved data does expire – January’s unused data is good until the following January — but there doesn’t seem any limit on how much data you can store up. In fact, Legere said T-Mobile would seed every customer’s Data Stash with 10 GBs when they sign up.

“It’s your data,” Legere said. “What you don’t use, you don’t lose.”

T-Mobile US CEO John Legere at CES

T-Mobile US CEO John Legere at CES

[company]T-Mobile[/company] will launch the program in January, and it will be available at no extra charge for any customer on a Simple Choice plan with a 3 GB or more monthly data bucket and on tablet plans with 1 GB or more.

Legere spent a lot of time bashing other carriers own practices of charging data overage fees and overselling data buckets, though T-Mobile until today perpetuated the same business model for much of its recent history as well. The difference is most of T-Mobile’s plans don’t come with overage fees or additional data purchase options. Instead T-Mobile currently throttles back bandwidth to 2G speeds for any customer who exceeds their data allotment in a billing cycle. When the new billing cycle begins speeds return to normal.

Smaller virtual operators like FreedomPop have launched data rollover programs in the past, and even [company]Verizon[/company] has experimented with rollover on its prepaid plans. But no major carrier has taken a data rollover program to such a level. Selling customers more data than they can use has been a classic way of milking more money from subscribers in recent years, just as selling consumers oversized voice minute buckets was they traditional ploy of the previous decade.

The announcement is part of T-Mobile’s evolving Uncarrier strategy — technically its 8th installment — in which T-Mobile has challenged many of the established norms of the mobile carrier business, including contract and subsidy programs and international roaming fees. What will be interesting to see is if other carriers follow in T-Mobile’s footsteps as they did with its Jump upgrade program and no-contract plans.