Evolution Everywhere

The significance of EE’s march-stealing launch of LTE in the UK was perhaps most effectively demonstrated by the responses of competitor operators Vodafone and O2 to Ofcom’s decision to authorise the repurposing of a portion of EE’s 1800MHz spectrum for 4G. Vodafone flew off the handle, describing Ofcom’s decision as “bizarre” and accusing it of a “careless disregard for the best interests of consumers, business and the wider economy”. O2 was more circumspect, prefering “hugely disappointed” as a stance. Both companies lamented the exclusion of their own customers from the first wave of LTE services, implicit in which was the knowledge that those who wanted 4G badly enough would churn to get it.

EE launched its LTE service in October 2012, followed by O2 and Vodafone in August the following year, thanks to Ofcom’s placatory decision to accelerate the 800MHz licensing process. Today UK LTE numbers show just justified EE’s competitors were in their concerns. Informa’s WCIS Plus (accessed June 20th) records EE’s LTE user base at the close of March this year as 2.89 million, compared to O2 with 1,000,000, 3UK with 1,500,000 and Vodafone with 471,901. The early start has given EE half the UK LTE market to date and WCIS forecasts suggest EE will retain this share until the end of 2017, when the total LTE market in the UK will number almost 29 million.

The UK’s largest operator, formed in 2010 by the amalgamation of Orange and T-Mobile, had more than 80 per cent of the UK LTE market in Q1 this year. Uptake has continued to be strong, with the firm claiming 3.6 million at mid-May this year. Speed has been the hallmark of the firm’s LTE deployment; it took less than eleven months to prepare the launch, according to CTO Fotis Karonis. “To land this project safely, at such a speed, was a huge technical challenge,” he says.

The aeronautical analogy may not be arbritarily deployed; Karonis was, in a previous incarnation, director of information technology and telecommunications for Athens International Airport. Immediately before joining EE he was CIO at Romanian incumbent Romtelcom—and he shoulders both CTO and CIO responsibilites in his current post. Indeed, the hybrid nature of the role itself is as much a reflection of the industry’s shifting sands as the accelerated LTE deployment that Karonis has overseen.

That deployment retains its momentum, he says. By the end of this year outdoor population coverage should be at 90 per cent, with indoor coverage nudging 60 per cent he says. The firm recently announced redoubled efforts to provide solid coverage links along key transport arteries, including rail networks and the market’s most important motorways. In May its rate of LTE customer sign-up overtook that for 3G services. History tells us that no lead in the industry is unassailable, of course, but right now EE looks difficult to beat in the UK LTE sector.

Karonis reveals that EE has made significant progress on its own performance metrics as deployment has expanded. Among the most important of these, he says, is first-time success with new site deployment. “In the first stages of the rollout, first time success with site build—getting every aspect right, and showing great performance on both 4G and 3G—was close to 60 per cent,” he says. “The teams worked hard to not let that slow down the early stages of the LTE rollout, and now we’re more experienced in the process and aligning all the teams involved, so we’re increasing the number of sites we switch on each month. We now have a first time success rate of 90 – 95 per cent,” he says.

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The difficulties inherent in such a task reflect the size of breadth and number of organisations on which EE depends for the rollout of its network. RAN suppliers including NSN and Huawei (the latter a new partner for LTE, he says), core network providers—NSN again, and Ericsson—IT companies including Amdocs, T-Systems and IBM and BT and Virgin Media on the transmission side make for “an enormous, very complex ecosystem,” he says. “Managing each of these suppliers simultaneously, making sure they worked together despite being competitors and ensuring that the scheduling did not falter was a massive engineering exercise. Making these companies work as a team was my critical success factor.”

Pressed for particular challenges Karonis identifies backhaul, a bottleneck headache familiar to mobile operator CTOs the world over. “We have really pushed BT and Virgin Media to invest in rural transmission,” he says. “Maybe we don’t always have a satisfactory answer [for every rural customer] but without the energy that we put in it wouldn’t be there at all.”

Furthermore, he says, he was responsible for making sure that the firm’s retail presence was in a position to transmute the achievements of the engineering and deployment teams into customer sales. At a time when online commerce seems truly pervasive, the retail store might seem like a touchpoint of yesteryear. But new technology launches require that potential customers can get their hands on the product, thus promoting the retail store to premier status in the operator’s customer acquisition strategies.

“If you don’t have the right retail stores you can’t sell the product,” Karonis says. “and we put a lot of focus into making sure we had the right transmission to the retail store. Every store had to have very good internal coverage, so customers could actually see 4G.” Indeed, asked what he would do differently if he had to run the firm’s LTE deployment again from scratch, he says he would have liked to have 20 more stores ready at the point of commercial launch.

Much of EE’s marketing since that launch has focussed on its leadership status in LTE—not just in a consumer-facing sense, relative to its UK competitors, but globally. A year after the launch, EE was billing itself in press releases as the world’s fastest mobile network, for example. But Karonis does not want the firm to pursue pioneer status for its own sake, he says, adding that in some instances it is better to be a follower than a leader.

Voice over LTE—the focus of a spate of commercial launch announcements in the first half of 2014—is one example and EE has said that it will not launch the technology before the end of this year. “Until we can ensure the same customer experience on VoLTE as on 3G—where we have a dropped call rate of around 0.6%—we won’t introduce this new capability,” Karonis says. “Our circuit-switched fallback for 4G customers is performing extremely well. One of the main customer benefits is HD Voice/AMR-WB, but we’re able to deliver that same codec on the 3G network so there’s little immediate benefit to VoLTE.”

For all the focus on the movement of data that LTE has generated, it is noteworthy that Karonis should position voice quality as the “main strength of our brand”. It has, he says, been central to key corporate account wins since the creation of the EE brand. VoLTE is attractive to operators because of the benefits that it affords them rather than their users, he suggests, adding: “We won’t launch something just because it is new, if it results in a degradation of service.”

In any case the device ecosystem has yet to address VoLTE en masse, he points out. The natural lag between network and device availability has been a characteristic of the industry since the days of GSM but Karonis believes that, in pursuing an aggressive strategy with LTE, EE has gained the upper hand in the age-old power struggle between operator and device vendor.

“Previously the rules of the game were defined by the smartphone manufacturer,” says Karonis, who takes care to refer to these vendors in geographical rather than nominal terms—“the companies from Korea and California,” for example. But now the balance of power has shifted, he says. Now EE is part of the high end group of operators that can influence the device process earlier and push the device ecosystem to deliver,” he says. EE has delivered network capabilities while the device ecosystem is still testing its chipsets, he says. “What we have achieved with this is to make the delivery times of new smartphones faster.

“We influence what is inside the device, what combinations of spectrum they support, whether the new application processors and modems are in the same chipsets or different chipsets,” he continues. “We can influence the roadmaps of the device builders like the guys in Korea, the Californians and the other guys.”

The network is the new differentiator, he argues, and the network is what gives the operator an ability to say that, of two devices that share many characteristics, one is definitively better than the other. On the network side, much has been made recently of the enhanced influence afforded operators by the architectural shift to Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). As a CIO—former and current—Karonis is more than familiar with the architectural model and even characterises today’s LTE cell sites as “like a datacentre; like a blade farm—it’s exactly the same concept.”

But as with VoLTE, EE will not be rushing to NFV, he says. “We see this as an opporunity and we are having dialogues with the main vendors,” he says. “And if you look at the core, it is a combination of IT and network technology coming together. It makes a lot of sense and, as these technologies converge you get great cross fertilization.” For this reason, he says, the coalescence of CIO and CTO functions at network operators will become an increasingly popular approach. “On the IT side you get agile software development and on the network side you have these very precise and excellent planners. Mixing these together gives you the best of both worlds, you get fantastic osmosis. These two roles, at least in the mobile industry, are born to be together,” he says.

Aside from throughput, which is where so much of the attention devoted to LTE tends to be directed, the technology has other benefits for a CTO. Improvements in dropped call rates, speed of connection, latency are all great signs for the CTO as doctor of the network, he says. LTE “behaves much better” than 2G and 3G generally, he says, and has enabled a number of new use cases. EE delivers services to London’s Metropolitan Police that enable on-scene activities that were hitherto impossible. The firm’s network has been used by broadcasters to cover large events without the need for anyting bigger than a handheld package (EE launched a petabyte LTE tariff late last year, targeting just such use cases).

“The UK is one of the fastest growing markets in the world, in terms of data consumption,” Karonis says. “Today 53 per cent of our traffic is video and we’re expecting that to go to 67 per cent in the next three years. There used to be this stereotype that you could do certain things in the office, certain things at home, certain things while mobile. But this is all starting to blur now, thanks to these big industrial steps like LTE. It changes normality.”

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