By Steve McCaskill
EE is to connect 1,500 rural communities in the UK to its 4G network by the end of 2017 using micro network technology that makes it easier and more economical to reach isolated locations by eliminating the need for cables.
Micro networks can connect up to 150 properties within a half square mile radius using three of four small antennas that connect wirelessly to the "macro" EE network. These can be installed within a few hours and do not require planning permission, unlike large masts.
Because micro networks don't require a fixed broadband connection, unlike Vodafone's Sure Signal femtocell technology, some rural communities could be connected with high-speed broadband for the first time.
EE Micro Networks
A micro network has been deployed in Sebergham in Cumbria where 129 homes and businesses have been connected. Probably not coincidentally, Cumbria was also the county where EE deployed 4G in 2013 in a bid to demonstrate the possibility that LTE could be used to bring high-speed broadband to places that fiber would not be able to reach.
Local leaders say the arrival of 4G in the village will change the lives of the 347 residents who have suffered from unreliable mobile coverage due to their location in a deep valley.
"The mobile service here is either non-existent or spasmodic at best. And the broadband is incredibly slow and very unreliable," said Cumbria County Councillor Duncan Fairbairn. "In rural communities like Sebergham, being connected to good, reliable mobile coverage can make a significant difference to everyday life and we need fast broadband.
"We're delighted to be the first community in the UK to benefit from this EE initiative, and there are more villages in my parish that I know will benefit hugely from this, and they're excited to be connected next."
National Roaming Battle
EE says that although micro networks can deliver targeted voice and data coverage for small villages, investment in the firm's macro network is still necessary. The company has been a vocal opponent of government plans for a national roaming network that would require mobile operators to allow customers of rival networks to use their signal in areas of poor coverage.
Research commissioned by EE claimed that the rollout of 4G would be delayed by up to two years by such an imposition and warned that it would remove the incentive for operators to invest in their infrastructure. The company presumably hopes its announcement will help derail these plans, which are also opposed by its three main rivals and the GSMA.
"With this innovative new technology, we have the capability to connect every community in the UK, and we estimate that we'll be able to bring reliable voice coverage and high speed mobile broadband to more than 1,500 places for the first time by 2017," said EE CEO Olaf Swantee. "We've been working closely with Government on the long-term ambition to bring voice coverage to more of the UK, and we believe that this world-first technology will demonstrate significant advancements against that vision."