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Swindon to get first UK 4G mobile network

For the party, not the proles

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Swindon council will be getting an LTE network next year, just as residents lose access to what free Wi-Fi the council's last networking project managed to provide.

UK Broadband will be kitting up Swindon council offices with LTE connections next year, using the 3.4GHz spectrum it acquired more than a decade ago – and which it has been filling with a variety of technologies ever since. But while the LTE network might provide back-haul to public services one day, for the moment it is simply connecting up council sites.

There has been some confusion over this, because Swindon was a leader in the municipal Wi-Fi movement and in 2009 it loaned Digital City £400,000 to build a city-wide Wi-Fi network. The idea was to offer free access at low speeds and make money selling premium services, only it didn't, and Digital City promptly went bust.

Earlier this week the council survived a vote of no-confidence on that issue – having announced the LTE scheme – but this new effort won't get Swindon its money back. Instead the council hopes that the LTE network will make an equivalent sum, eventually.

Quite how that will work isn't clear. Broadband UK does have a licence to provide mobile telephony at 3.4GHz, a licence variation it acquired in 2007, but mobile phones are unlikely. The company owns 40MHz of spectrum split into two equal chunks, for up and down links starting at 3480MHz and 3580MHz respectively. That's enough for a decent LTE service, just, but LTE handsets or tablets that will operate in that band aren't even on manufacturers' road maps yet.

There are 42 bands approved for LTE around the world, making the "quad-band" complexity of GSM look trivial. LTE devices will have to support a range of bands, but it will be a very long time before they'll support 42 of them, and the details of the 3.4GHz band aren't even harmonised across Europe yet.

But that’s not a problem for fixed wireless access, where receiving equipment can be tuned to the network. 3.4GHz won't penetrate walls, or anything else, and so is well suited for line-of-site distribution to fixed locations (as UK Broadband will be providing to Swindon).

Swindon's hopes of sharing that bandwidth in the future, and perhaps making back its investment in municipal broadband, will more likely rely on local Wi-Fi connections using the LTE network for back haul, if they ever appear at all that is.

But if the network is deployed next year, as planned, then Swindon will be able to claim to have the UK's first LTE network, even if only a select few will be able to use it. ®

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