Could 4G LTE take over fixed-line services in the UK?

4G road sign

What do Swindon, Reading and Southwark have in common? They're not tipped to be the next UK IT hubs, neither do they promise to be come a start up haven.

They are, in fact, experimenting to become the best-connected areas in the UK after UK Broadband introduced the first 4G LTE networks there.

The company launched its first 4G LTE broadband services in the UK this month and thinks it's going to take fixed-line services to a new level.

"We are really excited to offer residents and businesses in these areas a unique opportunity to enjoy 4G speeds using our wireless networks. Our services offer a truly flexible, hassle-free alternative to fixed line broadband services whether it's home, work or a customer Wi-Fi solution," Nicholas James, CEO of now Broadband - the name of the service being rolled out by UK Broadband earlier this month when the announcement was made.

"In terms of business benefits, this service can either be the primary superfast internet connection or provide the secondary or resilient connection to ensure that local businesses and organisations are connected at all times. Being always connected is now an essential requirement in today's business and increasingly cloud-based world. It can be extremely damaging if a business loses its internet connection."

UK Broadband (a subsidiary of Hong Kong based PCCW) is using a completely different sector of the spectrum than EE - or even O2 and Vodafone - is hoping to use when the auction opens for its mobile service next year.

The company is actually using the 3.5-3.6GHz frequencies to serve its users, using a TD-LTE router that just plugs into any power socket. UK Broadband is in a good position it's the UK's largest commercial holder of national radio spectrum suitable for 4G mobile and fixed wireless services.

"Swindon has been built as part of a hybrid LTE/Microwave network built at the request of Swindon Borough Council where the Council will buy certain services from us at a cost lower than they pay for their current solution," explained Sally Sommers, marketing manager at UK Broadband.

"UK Broadband already had a fixed wireless service in Reading, so it made sense to upgrade this service to LTE, which operates at much faster speed, and also to extend the network further into the town.

"We are offering service in Southwark as the first stage of our deployment in the capital city."

UK Broadband's service can reach speeds up to 60Mbps, although real world tests show it's displaying speeds of lower than that for uploads (around 25Mbps) and 5Mbps download. The aim is to roll the service out to more than 65,000 households and 2,600 businesses in Swindon taking advantage of a 4G box that simply plugs into any normal socket.

"I am really excited that residents, businesses and the public sector in Swindon are now in a position to start enjoying the benefits of both superfast 4G wireless broadband and ultrafast broadband connections," said Councillor Garry Perkins, Swindon Borough Council's Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Culture, in early October.

"Swindon has always been a great place to do business and we believe this new network will give our economy a major boost. Existing firms will have the chance to operate more flexibly, while we hope the 4G LTE technology will also attract new companies into Swindon.

"The council will also be the first local authority to benefit from this new service using LTE technology alongside microwave services and we will use this opportunity to transform the way we work, while at the same time making substantial savings."

Sommers says the company's fixed-line 4G service is better than fixed-line broadband for businesses because it's so fast to get up and running and doesn't need an engineer to visit to install. In fact, it takes just a couple of days for service to commence.

UK Broadband's 4G LTE broadband is also ideal for businesses that can't get a fast connection by traditional means at their premises for example, fibre optic services may not be available in the area or a landlord may not have fitted a connection at rented properties.

Rob Bamforth, principle analyst at Quocirca, sees proximity to a broadband connection still something of a challenge for many businesses.

"Cost [for businesses] is a significant issue, but getting a high speed connection into more remote locations is an issue for businesses as well as consumers," he told IT Pro.

"Plenty of businesses are outside the reach of fibre - new building sites, shops, petrol stations, for example - yet increasingly need fast connection to other parts of the business for dynamic updates, sharing data and perhaps also for advertising and video feeds."

UK Broadband says its 4G LTE via router is also ideal for businesses that don't want a long-term contract or want to move their office or guest Wi-Fi off their main internet connection or, perhaps, just want some extra capacity in the office.

Sommers says UK Broadband's networks are also useful as a back up connection, in addition to a fixed-line service.

"All business are becoming more and more reliant on being always connected' to be able to do business, especially businesses that use cloud services. These businesses cannot afford to have their internet line go down," she added.

"UK Broadband's wireless broadband service provides a quick and economical way for businesses to buy a fast back up internet connection that doesn't rely on the same infrastructure as the fixed-line service."

Nick McQuire, research director of IDC's mobile enterprise strategies arm for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), argues that if the performance of 4G LTE reaches similar levels as fixed broadband, although there will always be trade-offs, the benefits of mobility for SMEs and the ability to reach rural areas more cost effectively will be powerful.

"[SMEs] tend to have a higher concentration of mobile workers, and the benefits of greater mobile bandwidth and mobility will deliver enhanced benefits around customer service, contactability and agility for these businesses," he says.

SMEs want to have a single provider that can deliver them operating expense (OPEX)-based services across the entire ICT stack including connectivity.

"Access to capital is a big concern of many SMEs so service providers that can bundle solutions in a rent vs. buy model, including connectivity, communications and productivity solutions will have a good chance in this market," McQuire adds.

UK Broadband offers uncapped connection speeds, although, like most internet connections, it is subject to a fair use policy (although the company wouldn't divulge what that was).

What are the disadvantages to such a connection? UK Broadband routers only supports a maximum of 32 people connecting via the 4G router at the same time extras would have to use external Wi-Fi points.

Also, all users on the same router share the bandwidth, which could cause serious issues should it become overloaded with data transfers.

To counter this, UK Broadband is advising businesses to purchase multiple connections, which in turn, increases cost, making it less attractive as a main connection compared to a fixed-line connection.

"We recommend our services for SMEs, retail outlets, small offices, restaurants and cafes. It is a shared bandwidth service, so businesses do need to consider if this is appropriate to their needs,"' Sommers explains.

UK Broadband offers four packages, although only the Advanced and Premium are recommended for businesses, but both can be taken on a 24 month, 12 month or one month contract term.

Sommers said the company has already received positive feedback from customers, who claim "the service is hassle-free, very quick and easy to set up and either comparable or faster than their previous broadband service."

But could introducing a service like this from a broadband provider be a threat to mobile operators as they lag behind in roll out of 4G services? EE is set to be the first to make its 4G mobile broadband live on mobile, but its Mi-Fi services won't roll out for a while.

"EE may well adopt some fixed wireless propositions at some point, but I wouldn't expect that to be their primary initial target," explains Bamforth.

"There is plenty of room for competition between the usage patterns, especially for business use beyond the shiny mobile device in some executive's briefcase ie., connecting businesses like petrol stations, retail premises, restaurants that aren't located in science parks and purpose built or city centre offices with fibre to the door."

But McQuire isn't so convinced. He thinks there will be a lot of competition in the next 12-18 months, with the biggest threat to mobile operators coming from telecoms providers.

Bamforth concluded: "4G is well placed to deliver fixed wireless access, and will compete with satellite data services as well as fixed broadband. The challenge will be ensuring that it continues to deliver as usage increases and contention for backhaul rises."

Clare Hopping
Freelance writer

Clare is the founder of Blue Cactus Digital, a digital marketing company that helps ethical and sustainability-focused businesses grow their customer base.

Prior to becoming a marketer, Clare was a journalist, working at a range of mobile device-focused outlets including Know Your Mobile before moving into freelance life.

As a freelance writer, she drew on her expertise in mobility to write features and guides for ITPro, as well as regularly writing news stories on a wide range of topics.