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UK Broadband flicks switch on Blighty's first 4G network

But this is not the 4G you were hoping for

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MWC 2012 UK Broadband, wireless internet service provider to Swindon Council and beyond, has switched on its LTE network to claim the UK first, but don't expect to be making 4G phone calls any time soon.

UK Broadband's network is LTE, which qualifies as "4G" under the ITU's most-recent interpretation, and UK Broadband does have a licence to run a mobile telephony service, but the 3.5GHz band in which it intends to put the network, although it is nicely placed for fixed internet access over near line-of-sight connections, is hardly mobile telephony as most of us understand it.

Huawei is providing the kit for UK Broadband, which has a national licence for 40MHz of spectrum and so could, in theory, set up its service anywhere. But wireless internet service providers (WISPs) tend to be local operations and while this switch-on is claimed for London it is, realistically, Swindon which stands to gain initially. UK Broadband has a deal to provide Swindon with 4G networking, and Swindon Council has high hopes of turning a profit on the deal, which will necessitate letting commercial customers piggyback on the backhaul infrastructure deployed for the council.

Wireless internet access has long been proposed as an alternative to ADSL or cable connections, requiring much less investment in infrastructure to reach sparsely populated areas, but in the UK they've suffered from the inescapable reach of BT's copper. The scenario isn't complicated: BT decides it isn't economical to upgrade a region, so a WISP sets up and demonstrates people will pay, BT upgrades the network and can then undercut the WISP, and then the WISP goes bankrupt – despite having performed a public service in pushing internet access into another community.

The only solution is to stump up for fibre connections in rural areas, so that BT can't come in and patch up the copper cables to offer a comparable service, but that requires a lot more investment.

UK Broadband itself gained 84MHz of spectrum (at 3.6GHz) from Freedom4, a failed WISP which was using WiMAX technology. UK Broadband picked up that spectrum, along with the rest of Freedom4, in 2010, but won't be using it for this rollout. The spectrum it is using was acquired in 2003, and has been largely empty since then, while the company mucked about with WiMAX and various business models trying to make the WISP concept work.

This time around, it is using Time Division Duplex (TDD) LTE from Huawei, despite the fact that the spectrum was originally partitioned into send and receive bands. TDD involves flipping between send and receive in the same band, and is generally a good thing even if it goes against the grain of many in the industry who'd still prefer two separate wires. TDD is gaining in popularity, and there's a chunk of frequency at 2.6GHz which will be filled with TDD-LTE around the world, but the 3.6GHz band being used by UK Broadband isn't among the more popular LTE bands, so the kit needed to be modified specifically for the UK WISP and won't achieve the economies of scale that one gets by using standard bands.

But that might not matter, if one takes a guess at the customers UK Broadband will be chasing. The most-profitable WISP customers aren't rural communities, they are businesses looking for redundant connections bypassing the road outside.

Fear of a cut cable is reasonable, and the complexity of reselling means it's not rare to discover companies buying their back-up connections from a supplier, who is in turn sub-leasing the bandwidth from the company's primary supplier: putting primary and backup on the same physical cable. Using a WISP removes that risk, and it's a lot easier to get line of sight to the top of a tower block than it is to a rural cottage.

So UK Broadband can, and will, legitimately claim to be running the UK's first 4G wireless network, and taking advantage of the ability of LTE to fulfill so many different wireless requirements, but we'd be surprised to see anyone making phone calls on the network any time soon. ®

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