EE sends unsolicited Christmas letter to its competitors

“It’s been so hectic dealing with the burden of being the number one operator – subscribers, spectrum, expansion, etc – that we just don’t know where to start. So, how have you been?”

That’s not actually what EE said, but CEO Marc Allera has written a letter to the CEOs of the other three major UK mobile operators to say he thinks they should all “work together to tackle what is our industry’s biggest perception challenge: customers’ expectations concerning coverage and signal quality.”

Allera’s main point is that one of the most commonly used metrics used to demonstrate network quality is population coverage. But since that is already approaching 100% for 4G – i.e. nearly everyone in the UK has access to 4G at home – it’s no longer a useful data point. He thinks we should focus on geographical coverage instead.

By pure coincidence EE is in the process of rolling out its 800 MHz spectrum capability, which is earmarked entirely for coverage, as promised back in April. The 800 MHz base stations already live have boosted EE’s geographical coverage by three percentage points to 75% but over the course of next year this will jump to 92% at the rest of the 800 MHz comes online alongside continuing site upgrades and around 500 brand new sites.

EE, of course, is confident that its geographical coverage numbers will be the best and you’ve got to give Allera top marks for gall in sending a public letter to his competitors, inviting them to compete in a race in which he has a considerable head-start.

“Today, people think they will get mobile coverage absolutely everywhere, because as an industry we’ve talked about coverage with confusing population metrics, and language that sets the wrong expectations,” said Allera, announcing the letter, a version of which was also sent to Sharon White – head of Ofcom. “Too often, the customer experience has been very different from the marketing. That has to stop.

“We’re asking our peers and the mobile industry to get ‘Clear on Coverage’. All operators should publish clearer geographic coverage information, and we’re seeking support from Ofcom as the independent source of information on mobile coverage and quality. We want to make it easier and clearer for consumers to know where they will and won’t get coverage, and which network is the right one for them.”

Shaun Collins, CEO of analyst firm CCS Insight, seems to think this is a cunning plan. “In offering to part fund the scheme through Ofcom, EE is making it difficult for Ofcom to dismiss the idea as too complex,” he said. “If as EE claims, it has the best network in the UK, it may be difficult to persuade its competitors to the scheme in the short run. It’s no surprise to see this from EE which has largely been selling its network quality and coverage to UK consumers. This bold move by Marc Allera will be studied carefully by his competitors, it will be interesting to see their reactions.”

It’s hard to argue with Collins on that one. Opportunistic though this move may be it does put the ball in the other operators’ court. If they dismiss the move it might look like they’re running scared, but if they go along with it they risk handing EE a major PR and marketing win. The smart money is probably on them doing nothing and hoping everyone forgets all about it. EE is unlikely to let them do that, however.

Scott Stonham, General Manager of Europe at RootMetrics, the network performance measurement company that consistently has EE as the UK leader, also seems keen on the move.

“With a variety of testing methods currently in place, consumers are often making decisions on data that doesn’t provide an accurate representation of real-life usage,” he said. “Relying on crowd collected data in isolation, for instance, to build a nationwide picture of mobile performance can lead to statistical uncertainty and bias.

“To build an accurate assessment of the performance of all the UK’s mobile operators, information must be derived from rigorous, independent and scientific collection with interpretation of fit for purpose data. Only then will consumers be able to fully understand whether a network is going to meet their needs and make an informed decision on who to choose.”

It does seem clear that if most operators are close to 100% population coverage then that’s no longer a useful metric. However, since the remaining geographical coverage holes mainly concern people desperate to put their photos of the Scottish Highlands of Facebook without delay, it’s arguable how useful the that metric is too. We’re probably not far from a time when mobile is the same as fixed and it’s all about speeds and feeds rather than coverage, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Allera is already drafting an open letter to the ASA on this topic.

Here’s a copy of the letter, a GIF and a video, you can’t say fairer than that.

Letter to operator CEOs – Marc Allera

EE network GIF



  1. Avatar Stephen Speirs 23/11/2016 @ 1:57 pm

    On your point … “It does seem clear that if most operators are close to 100% population coverage then that’s no longer a useful metric. However, ….
    **since the remaining geographical coverage holes mainly concern people desperate to put their photos of the Scottish Highlands of Facebook **
    …. without delay, it’s arguable how useful the that metric is too.”

    Sorry guys you’re wrong on this! 🙂 Small businesses in the highlands *wish* this was the problem. This gets to the heart of the typical mis-understanding of the problems of rural broadband: it’s not about surfing, it’s not about Facebook or Amazon access – it’s about having sufficient internet bandwidth to perform basic and fundamental business tasks. In the Scottish Highlands, too many businesses can’t even process credit card payments reliably at the required volumes due to lack of decent internet access.

    For more details read here:

    And you’re also missing the opportunity for autonomous cars, that I talk briefly about in my blog – which will require at least 4G and more than likely 5G – both with widespread geographical coverage.

  2. Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 23/11/2016 @ 3:02 pm

    Thanks Stephen,

    Perhaps I was unclear that the coverage story refers to 4G. You might want to direct your sympathetic ire towards fixed line suppliers to address the rural woes you describe.

    And thank also for the link to your blog – keep up the good work!

  3. Avatar graham rousell 23/11/2016 @ 5:58 pm

    Certainly this could address the issue of poor coverage when travelling within rural areas so would have to be welcomed. I’m not clear on how much drive and walk testing is carried out in these situations, but I can certainly recall recent situations trying to get a signal or hold onto one, so this surely proves the point.

  4. Avatar Stephen Speirs 23/11/2016 @ 8:22 pm

    Hi Scott

    Thanks for the reply, and I do like your article, as it points at the need for all to up their game. I definitely got that the story was about 4G, that was clear. However in my experience businesses (in particular) suffering because of poor internet access don’t really care where it is coming from – over the air or over a wire. There is growing recognition that wireless/cellular may be the way to ensure coverage into hard to reach rural areas (I’ll be highlighting some of the small and innovative local service providers doing just this in a future blog).

    However my reaction was more towards what unfortunately is a commonly held belief, that internet access is about little more than posting Facebook photos. When you hear how businesses are suffering – esp in the highlands, as I highlight in my blog above – I would hope that readers would realise the problem is much more serious. Small businesses are loosing customers – regularly. Bigger businesses like Glencoe Mountain get lambasted for poor customer experience at the ticket desks. Coffee shops in internet poor areas are suffering as tourists opt to travel down the coast to areas that have higher speed access. All because of poor internet provision. I mean, when the “coffee and cake” businesses, critical components of how tourists deal with the lousy Scottish weather, are impacted, suddenly I take an interest in digitization 🙂

    There are different perspectives in these are areas of “low population” and therefore “fast internet provision is uneconomic”. Low population means low down in the priority list for broadband enablement. What no-one seems to realise – and I’d include the Scottish government in this – is that while some areas have low population, they have huge numbers of tourist visitors. The visitor centre at the foot of Ben Nevis, for example, attracts 400,000 visitors per year – yet there is no 3G nor fast WiFi available. Glencoe Mountain receives around 150,000 visitors a year, yet struggles to process credit card payments at the volumes required in the ski season. I talk more on this in part of the blog at

    This is an interesting topic and a top concern in rural communities – I heard one operator describe local community meetings “closer to a lynch mob”, such is the strength of feeling. So thanks for highlighting with your article.

  5. Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 24/11/2016 @ 9:20 am

    Good points well made – thanks. The FB comment was tongue-in-cheek and I get that there are less frivolous concerns.

  6. Avatar Gareth Phillips 26/11/2016 @ 7:36 pm

    Would this have anything to do with the current situation regarding the emergency services network’s transition from TETRA? I would suspect this could be a reason. When we undertook a drive test of all mobile operators operating along the A9 from Perth to Inverness, only 3 from Hutch covered the entire route. 2G was patchy and 4G pretty much non existant, apart from around Perth and Inverness. The coverage maps provided by the operators are normally based on prediction runs, not actual surveys. As we can undertake such surveys, indicated coverage is always shown to be quite different! Considering the challenging terrain in Scotland for any decent coverage at 4G frequencies, I’m not surprised EE are testing this idea because to replicate current TETRA coverage, they need a lot more sites, which up there will be expensive.

  7. Avatar Leland Creswell 02/12/2016 @ 9:06 am

    Wish someone would do something cool with all of the money they are soaking up from their semi-monopolies.. maybe flying wireless blimps or something.

    Instead all we get is this useless posturing and email swapping. 🙁

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