UK 4G market opens up as O2 sets launch date for end of August

A telco base station.

Telefonica’s O2 UK has finally given details, including the launch date, for its 4G services. This means we now have our first real idea of the competition that EE – until now the only mainstream 4G provider in the UK – will face.

EE’s monopoly since October 2012 was based on the fact that regulators let it reuse or “refarm” some of its existing 2G spectrum, specifically spectrum in the 1800MHz band, for 4G purposes. O2, on the other hand, had to wait for January’s spectrum auction to pick up airwaves in the 800MHz band that it could use for LTE services. The 800MHz band, which was previously used for digital TV and wireless microphones, was declared cleared this week, and on Thursday O2 said it would launch its 4G offering on 29 August.

O2’s rollout will begin in the three cities of London, Leeds and Bradford, before spreading to 10 more cities by the end of this year. By contrast, EE’s 4G is already active at “double speed” (around 30Mbps in practice) in 15 cities, and at normal speed in 95 towns and cities. That said, 800MHz spectrum (of which EE has also bought a chunk) is better than 1800MHz spectrum at supporting services that penetrate into buildings and over long distances.

Ultimately, both carriers aim to provide LTE coverage to 98 percent of the UK population.

According to O2 chief Ronan Dunne:

“It’s great that I am able to announce O2 4G the day after the spectrum has been cleared for use. Digital connectivity will be made ubiquitous by 4G and become the oxygen of modern life.”

O2 could certainly use the extra capacity that it’s about to turn on, as the carrier said data usage on its network has doubled in the last year.

As for price, O2 said its plans would start at £26 ($39) per month. The cheapest non-4G tariff on O2 is £11 per month. EE’s cheapest 4G tariff costs £21 per month, but that’s a SIM-only affair and we still don’t know the details of O2’s cheapest offering in order to compare the two. EE’s £21 deal, it should be noted, only comes with 500MB of monthly data – a bit of a joke when your connection is that zippy.

We’re still waiting to hear about Vodafone’s pricing, but Three – the upstart fourth player – has already suggested that it won’t charge a premium for 4G speeds, theoretically meaning LTE prices starting at £15 per month. Both of these carriers will also launch their LTE services by year’s end and, seeing as Vodafone has a network-sharing deal with O2 to cut down on infrastructure costs, it’s a fair guess that its announcement won’t be far off.

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