Right now in Slough there's a trial going on. Six mobile cell towers are serving traffic on a next generation 4G network. It's the only live trial of its kind in the UK and it's being run by O2's research and development team. What's surprising, though, is those six masts are capable of handling the same volume of traffic as O2's entire UK 3G network. Read on to find out more.
Derek McManus is in charge of O2's network, IT, technology and innovation. As the Chief Operating Officer he is well placed to understand not only how O2 works but what the future holds. During his Twitter interview this week, where he answered customer questions from across the twittersphere, he shone some light on the future of the mobile network in the UK. And boy does it look exciting.
Long Term Evolution, more commonly known as LTE is the next generation mobile network. Right now it's still in trial phase, but as Derek revealed already shows incredible promise. Consider the stats. The mini network of six cell sites is already capable of handling the same volume of traffic of O2's entire 3G network in the UK. That's six next generation cells capable of doing the work of thousands of current generation cells. The scale is simply enormous. Derek recently watched Monsters Vs Aliens in HD on his laptop, streamed over the 4G network.
Here's a video from Janurary last year, but it shows what it achievable with 4G speeds.
McManus cites the change in smartphone usage and user behaviour as being one of the biggest challenges the mobile industry didn't see coming. Catching the entire industry off guard, the challenge has been on for some time to deliver high quality mobile broadband at equivalent speeds people are used to at home. All the while, maintaining not one (3G) but two existing networks (3G and 2G), serving 22 million customers. It's a challenge McManus clearly relishes though, citing LTE as one of the things he's most excited about going forward.
The other is NFC, or near field communications. Although he remained tight-lipped when we asked, he did hint that we'd be seeing some very interesting opportunities in the near future around NFC and shopping. Given that NFC-enabled debit cards have been arriving in our wallets of late, it doesn't take a huge leap to work out where we might be headed there.
Right now though it's all about 3G. With 22 million customers, it's difficult to reach a balance which pleases everyone all of the time. Two key issues Derek tackled head on during his interview were those around network capacity and data usage. For the first, Derek was able to reveal the roll out of 900Mhz 3G network in London initially followed by other parts of the country. This would go some way to improving the capacity some users highlight as an issue currently.
When it comes to data usage, Derek stands behind the necessity of O2's data usage policy and more specifically the use of caps, highlighting that the days of unlimited data usage were over for the mobile industry. For customers who want to use more data, then more generous allowances are available, though users will need to pay more for these.
O2's role here is to provide a good service for as broad a range of customers as possible. For the vast majority of the 22 million, the service works brilliantly. Data caps is something that affects a 3 per cent minority of O2 customers but the company remains committed to servicing them as it does its other 21 million or so customers.
It's taken the best part of 10 years to get 3G from a concept to something that's available to the vast majority of the country. Even right now investment continues (to the tune of about £1 million per day across the country) on the current 2G and 3G network, to improve performance and increase capacity.
Likewise with 4G, McManus believes it'll take a similar length of time before it hits real mass-usage, where it'll be the norm for the majority of users to be using a 4G device on a 4G network.
To understand the benefits of 4G, we need to start back at 2G which was the first digital mobile network in the UK. Designed around voice, its data capabilities were pretty limited, not to mention slow. 3G was a genuine evolution offering a generous mix of voice and data capabilities but not dedicated to either. 4G on the other hand is entirely centred around data, with voice effectively an added bolt on. The result is something which will offer incredible capacity and speed – two things users need more and more of.
We may be at the start of another chapter in the evolution of the mobile network, but it looks like a serious page turner with surprise and excitement around every corner. We can't wait.