O2, Voda and 3 will have the last laugh on 4G

Britain’s 4G network was officially declared “open” this week to much fanfare by the newly rebranded Everything Everywhere, now known as EE. But rather than falling behind by not being allowed to launch their own 4G services until some time next year, the likes of O2, Vodafone and Three should see it as an opportunity to ride on the crest of a wave.

Lara O'Reilly

EE aims to introduce 4G technology to 16 cities in the UK before Christmas this year. It claims that current niggles with mobile internet such as buffering videos or email attachments taking an age to download will be a thing of the past for users with 4G coverage.

Olaf Swantee, EE’s CEO, says comparing 3G with 4G will be like looking at the steam engine versus the jet. EE told me current 4G tests in Bristol are achieving download speeds of 50 to 60 MB per second on average. By way of comparison, most 3G (HSPA+) connections can reach a maximum theoretical download speed of about 40 MB/s in the UK, although this is usually far slower.

Ofcom, the UK’s telecoms regulator gave permission for EE to have a head start on its competitors to launch 4G by allowing it to repurpose the spectrum it uses for 2G services. O2, Vodafone and Three will need to wait until at least 2013 to launch their services following an auction process that will begin at the end of the year.

O2 is currently trying to persuade Ofcom to bring this auction forward, but perhaps it shouldn’t be too hasty.

By launching first with 4G in the UK, EE has the demanding task of educating the public as to what 4G actually is. I’d hazard a guess that most people with a smartphone probably couldn’t describe what 3G is and fewer still could give an accurate comparison with 3G – they simply know that their smartphone gives them access to Google, Facebook and Angry Birds.

Despite what Swantee says, the benefits of 4G aren’t truly analogous with the steam and jet engine example he gives. Users with 4G coverage will get a slightly faster version of what they already have to do the things they already do on their phones more efficiently, but at a premium – that’s going to be a difficult sell-in to consumers that aren’t data hungry or tech savvy.

EE started its educational marketing push long before earlier this week. In April it launched the 4G Britain website to raise awareness of 4G among businesses and consumers (and also as part of its lobbying bid to speed up the rollout of the spectrum).

The company is also set to invest £50m in rebranding its 700 Orange and T-Mobile high street stores to EE. The stores and staff will place a strong focus on the new “superfast” service, as will the upcoming multimillion pound multi media push to launch the new consumer-facing brand EE.

EE has created a new brand that is based – at least for now – solely around the 4G proposition. It will spend months and months and pounds and pounds on attempting to make sure the entire population has a clear idea what that means.

EE has made a massive bet on launching a new consumer-facing brand – and maybe eventually doing away with its old ones – around a network. Some commentators have asked why EE did not simply add 4G tariffs to its existing Orange and T-Mobile offerings but a few months’ grace gives its rivals the opportunity to see whether an additional brand or just an added bundle would best by judging the initial response from the market.

EE customers may well have early access to 4G using new compatible devices like the iPhone 5 and the Nokia 920, but in the meantime EE’s rivals will have access to reams of market research data as to whether that ever mattered to the majority of consumers in the first place.

It will be interesting to see how O2, Vodafone and Three differentiate their 4G propositions. It can’t all be about speed – just look at the broadband market.

For operators the benefits of 4G are clear: increased capacity and the ability to offer more b2b services such as cloud computing and machine to machine communications. For consumers, the advantages are a little more blurry.

EE and its esteemed agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and Wolff Olins will no doubt do the job of explaining the technology behind 4G, initially to early tech adopters. Instead of sniping at Ofcom, EE rivals should concentrate on following on from this lead and create innovative marketing that brings the technology from up in the air down into everyday people’s hands.

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