EE switches on UK’s first 4G mobile broadband service

Newly rebranded owner of Orange and T-Mobile says fourth-generation mobile broadband will be five times faster than 3G

EE, the UK’s largest mobile network and owner of the Orange and T-Mobile brands, has switched on the country’s first 4G service and is promising to roll it out to 16 cities before Christmas.

With EE locked in a legal stand-off with rival operators, the date of launch is still uncertain. The company is promising a service “in the coming weeks”, but signal is already in large areas of London, Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham for testing by engineers.

At a press conference at the Science Museum in London on Tuesday, attended by mayor Boris Johnson, the company promised its 4G, or fourth-generation network, will deliver speeds around five times faster than today’s 3G networks to an initial area covering 20 million people, about a third of the UK population.

The nationwide roll out, which is costing £1.5bn over three years, will accelerate through 2013 to reach 98% of the population by 2014.

“We look forward to connecting the country with superfast mobile speeds in the coming weeks, months and years” said chief executive Olaf Swantee. “And it starts today, with the announcement of our new business, our new brand and a new digital infrastructure that our company, our customers and the country can be proud of.”

The new service will come with a rebrand. The much criticised Everything Everywhere company name and shop brand is being shortened to EE, which will also become the consumer brand for the superfast service, and will be used to launch a foray into fixed line fibre broadband.

Orange broadband, which already sells a service over copper, will be rebranded and fibre connections running on BT’s network added to its offerings in recognition that UK consumers are ready for faster speeds both at home and on the move.

All 700 shops which are currently branded Orange, T-Mobile and Everything Everywhere, will be renovated and have the EE brand added to their shopfront alongside the other logos.

The company announced six devices, including a specially created version of Samsung’s SIII, the latest Nokia Lumia handsets, others from HTC and Huawei, plus a laptop dongle and a personal Wi-Fi hotspot device, which are ready to run on its new network. EE will be hoping that the iPhone 5, which is unveiled on Wednesday in California, will also function on 4G in the UK but this has not been confirmed.

Faster mobile internet will deliver services of around 8 Mbps and higher, about equal to the average home broadband connection, and allow customers to download high definition video in minutes, watch live TV on the move without buffering, play live multiplayer games, download large email attachments quickly, and make video calls.

The date of launch is uncertain because rival network O2 has threatened to block EE’s service by appealing telecoms regulator Ofcom’s decision to allow it to go ahead. It has written to EE and Ofcom saying it is minded to make a complaint to the Competition Appeals Tribunal and ask for the service to be halted until the appeal is decided.

“I am hopeful there will be no litigation in this industry,” said Swantee. He declined to comment on reports of a truce between the operators brokered by Jeremy Hunt, just before his move from running the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to become health secretary. It is understood the operators have agreed to suspend any legal action for a month while they negotiate an agreement.

Rivals are unhappy that Ofcom allowed EE a head start on 4G. The company had enough spectrum to launch a service without having to wait for the auction of government airwaves reserved for 4G services, which concludes early next year.

The other networks say they need the new spectrum which will be released in the auction to launch their services, because they own less bandwidth than EE. Already Britain’s largest mobile operator with 27 million customers, EE could gain an edge by being the first UK company to provide superfast mobile internet at a time when smartphone users are hungry for better connections. Dozens of other nations, including the US and Germany, are already enjoying commercial 4G services and the UK is in danger of losing its status as one of the most advanced mobile technology markets if improvements to its mobile internet structure are further delayed. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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