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EE, the UK joint venture of France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom, has just released its full-year results for 2012. The financials show a fourth-quarter slowdown in new contract customers joining the network, but the big buzz today is about a detail EE left out: the number of 4G subscribers it now has.
Remember that EE is the only major carrier to be offering LTE services in the UK right now. It can do this because it was allowed before anyone else to ‘refarm’ its existing 2G spectrum for 4G – rivals will soon be able to do the same, and an upcoming auction will introduce fresh spectrum for fast mobile broadband. Remember, too, that EE is charging a premium for such services, above what it charges for 3G data.
EE’s 4G network went live at the end of October, so it’s easy to look at the “net adds” for Q4 – the number of people who signed up for an EE contract minus the number that jumped ship – and smell trouble. Net adds were 201,000 for the quarter, down from 313,000 a year previously.
Here’s how Ovum analyst Steven Hartley saw things, as per a statement the analyst house issued this morning:
“EE has everything in its favour for LTE to be a success: a market of high smart phone adoption and data usage but starved of high-speed mobile broadband; an LTE monopoly; rapid LTE coverage deployment; and a wider range of compatible handsets at launch than any other LTE operator. Therefore, unspectacular LTE uptake will be due to brand and pricing.”
Hartley certainly has a point. EE’s branding is… an issue. Everyone was used to the old T-Mobile and Orange brands, then the merger happened in 2010 and they were faced with Everything Everywhere, a disaster in terms of SEO and, may I add as a journalist, headlines. Little more than two years later, it was suddenly EE – an arguable improvement, but not by much.
Similarly, pricing is a problem. It’s a tricky proposition to charge more for 4G when your 4G network is still far from ubiquitous – according to EE’s results, coverage now stands at 43 percent. U.S. carriers have generally been better about this, steering clear of premium pricing at this point, and UK operator Three has already jumped in to say it will do the same.
However, as Matthew Howett, another Ovum analyst, pointed out on Twitter:
Not too surprised EE aren’t yet disclosing 4G sub numbers. Either good or bad it could give critical info to competitors during the auction
— Matthew Howett (@howett) February 19, 2013
As Howett went on to explain, high subscription numbers could overheat the bidding – EE may already have 4G-friendly spectrum, but it wants to buy more and it wants to get away with paying as little as possible. As for reporting low numbers — well, no-one wants to do that.
It may be that EE’s 4G numbers are disappointing, and that would probably have to do with pricing. But, at this point, with only two months’ worth of LTE provision being included in the financials, it’s probably unwise to read too much into the operator’s silence.