Ukkoverkot CEO explains benefits of 450MHz band

As recently reported, Finnish start-up company Ukkoverkot has just launched a data-only LTE network on the 450MHz radio spectrum band. spoke to CEO Antti Pellinen, the man leading the young company to find out more about the network the operator says is the world’s first such service commercially available.

Ukkoverkot is not the first company in Finland to deploy the 450MHz band for broadband use. In fact, the operator purchased the chuck of spectrum and licence from previous 450MHz broadband operator Datame after it went bankrupt last year.

“We felt that the 450MHz band is too valuable to let it go to waste, so to speak, and so we acquired it from the bankruptcy estate,” Pellinen says. “Last May we got the approval from the government to go ahead with upgrading the network from CDMA to LTE, and we completed the transformation last month.”

The relatively low frequency of 450MHz is well suited to vast areas where base stations are few and far apart. One 450MHz base station can cover twice the area of an 800MHz base station, and 20 times that of a single 2.6GHz node. With a relatively low population of 5.4 million Finland, which spans about 1,000 kilometres from south to north and a total of 340,000 square kilometres, is certainly an ideal kind of country for this sort of technology.

For the time being, Ukkoverkot, whose name is partially derived from ancient Finnish mythology, where Ukko was the top dog among the gods, is focusing on the Finnish market only. “We are now focusing making sure our network service is stabilised, and growing our customer base in Finland. Our coverage reaches 99.9% of the population, which is more than anyone else’s network.

“We have a very strong core network, which would make it possible for us to expand our operations elsewhere but at the moment we are not intent on doing that. We do intend to increase capacity and add more base stations [in Finland] over time though, and we remain open to discussions with other operators in Europe.”

Finland has three mobile operators, the ex-incumbent telco Elisa, TeliaSonera and DNA. Pellinen says their relationship with the big three is good. “I think they first thought we might be trying to start a price war by going really low [on price], but they have now seen that’s not the case. Our strategy is not to go low in a market where prices are already relatively low, but actually go higher than others. We are not the cheapest but we are the most reliable broadband provider.”

“In terms of coverage, ours is overwhelmingly the widest LTE network in the country. Its availability is also on another level due to the fact that we don’t really serve consumers, our target customers are field-work based businesses, emergency services and public sector bodies.

“But our service is also very well suited to use for payments systems at mass events, for example, because the network doesn’t get flooded by people downloading stuff and using social media. We can guarantee the required capacity and a speedy service.”

Pellinen says the service offers good stability for logistics and railways as less hand-over between cells are needed. The lower the frequency, the bigger the cells, and the less handovers. “Our biggest customer is VR [the Finnish national railway company], and you could say the faster the train travels, the better the network service,” Pellinen says jokingly.

While Ukkoverkot only offers a data network, and has no plans to move to voice, the operator sees big future potential in the growing IoT market. “The 450MHz band is ideal for connecting cars, for example. The internet of things is definitely an area where we think we can grow in the future.”

Although Ukkoverkot may be the only commercial 450MHz LTE network provider now, it most likely won’t be the last one to launch this kind of service. “We know that people are looking at similar proposals in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. In the Baltics [Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia] operators are also weighing up the different options in network upgrades, and they are considering this as a possible way to go.”

Perhaps this is something to think about in other countries too, including the UK where rural coverage is notoriously bad, and the issue is increasingly turning into a political battle. It will be interesting to see whether others will follow and take up what Ukkoverkot has done.

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