EE says Vodafone complacent on LTE rollout

EE's Director of RAN Development casts doubt on Vodafone and O2's network sharing plans, and says LTE rollouts are not as easy as EE has made it look.

EE’s Director of RAN Development, Hanif Mansoor, has accused Vodafone and O2 of being perceived as “arrogant” by network services suppliers, and has cast doubt on how the operators’ network sharing operation Project Beacon is working out. He also said that top level management at Vodafone appeared to have been “complacent” about how easy an LTE roll out would be.

Hanif’s comments perhaps stemmed from a grievance that Vodafone has not portrayed EE’s own rollout in the best light, with CEO Vittorio Colao reported to have claimed during the company’s results briefing on 21 May 2013 that Vodafone’s LTE at 800Mhz would be “true LTE”.

“One thing I would comment on, is that they have been a bit unfair on us. It seemed to me they were so confident that their’s would be “true LTE”, and their’s would have better indoor, which I found very strange because for me that’s a little bit of complacency if they think that’s all it takes.

“Maybe because we went so fast, maybe people at a high level misunderstood that it was easy. I think that the recent injection of capital and resetting of plans means that they’ve somehow misjudged, because we didn’t shift any of our plans, ever. That’s what I find strange, they say ‘true LTE’, for me what I call LTE is the one you can touch, feel and buy in the shop. It’s no good saying the future’s going to be true when you can’t even buy it. I’d be embarrassed saying what I haven’t launched is ‘true’ and what someone else has launched isn’t true.’

Colao’s comments were in part explained by Vodafone’s 2x10MHz holdings at 800MHz, something that the operator thinks will allow it to develop better and more widespread indoor coverage.

But Hanif disputed that an operator with 2x10Mhz would have a significant advantage over one with 2x5MHz, as EE has.

“I think it’s not a handicap at all, we always made it clear to our bosses that 2x5MHz is enough, because you need that to get indoor in remote areas, and if you need a long reach in outlying areas then it’s useful. 5MHz or 10MHz – it’s not going to give you an advantage because that doesn’t give you much bandwidth. In those [remote] areas you’re going to be more limited by transmission than anything else,” Hanif said.

What some of our suppliers were telling us was that they felt that Vodafone and O2 were a little bit arrogant in the way they were treating them.

But it was in the areas of forming partnerships, and working with large teams across the country to install a new network, that Hanif really felt Vodafone and O2 would meet challenges.

Asked by The Mobile Network what challenges he thought Vodafone and O2 would come across in LTE deployment, Hanif said:

“I think what we found is that you need the people to do it and agree to disagree and work it out without killing it each other. I believe that Vodafone and O2 will find it very difficult to agree with each other. I believe the model they have of co-operation is a very difficult one. We have probably the deepest sharing through MBNL in the world and even then it’s not easy to make it work, we fight over technical things we don’t agree on. It’s a difficult thing to do and it takes a lot of human will to work together and I don’t believe that our competitors are seeing eye to eye, that’s my feeling, and if that is the case then they’ll find it very difficult to move ahead.”

So in what sense does Hanif think the two operators are not seeing eye to eye?

“What I would suggest is the way they’ve cut the country in half, with Project Beacon, sounds very strange to me. We don’t have a geographic split, we have to agree across the whole country,” Hanif said. “We were leading the design but as H3G want to do 4G later than us we had a big fight, we had to push it and we agreed, we had to agree over the whole country.

“They’ve split the country in half, O2 in charge of one and Vodafone of the other, each one delivering for the other. That’s a very strange relationship as all your marketing plans and consumer plans depend on your competitor, so you can’t really launch nationally unless you’re completely aligned, if there’s any suspicion there I can’t see how they can agree on a stable model.”

Keith Groombridge, Principal Delivery Manager in EE’s networks team, explained how EE and Three have had to trade over their respective network priorities:

“Although we compete with Three we share a lot of infrastructure with them. From an LTE perspective backhaul is key and because we share that part of the network a lot of the design work around that is not something we can do in isolation. Other operators very rarely have to do that design work in collaboration with a competitor. That took a lot of time and effort and I think that’s one massive area of challenged for O2 and Vodafone.

“The other is that you have so many different partners. One of the biggest challenges we had was aligning everybody, having all those organisations all focused in the same direction and being really clear in the goal we were working towards. It takes a phenomenal amount of energy to create that and maintain that. That type of alignment from a design point of view that’s a challenge they’ll face but in terms of moving to roll out that kind of alignment you need, and driving that massive machine, takes an immense amount of effort.

“As an example, just for the backhaul we got four or five organisations we were working with and we ended up getting to the point where we co-located them for four months in Manchester. We’ve got hundreds of people in different organisations with their own objectives and we had to get them to really feel they had the same goal. And we ended up for our launch cities having maps on the wall of all the different cities we were going to launch in – and every time we delivered another link we changed those maps. They [the suppliers] could see what they were doing, and that gave them personal engagement to it – it became a really personal thing for all of us. It’s how you harness that kind of energy and make use of all the capability you’ve got and align it across all those organisations. We have a lot of respect for O2 and Vodafone but that’s a challenge that is ahead of them.”

So who are all those organisations that have to be co-ordinated across a network build?

Groombridge said, “You’ve got people out preparing sites, building infrastructure, then you have got teams of installers installing the base station equipment, power and cabinets, engineers configuring it, engineers digging trenches for fibre, configuration teams connecting the fibre at either end, people working across six or seven organisations to bring a single site up, and even once it’s activated you’ve got people going around drive testing not just that one site but the surrounding area.”

Hanif added, “We’ve got what we call the Diamond Programme to get everybody to work together and we find also that’s difference between us and Vodafone and O2. What our partners are telling us, everyone in the UK knew that it would be a battle for resource this year. What some of our suppliers were telling us was that they felt that Vodafone and O2 were a little bit arrogant in the way they were treating them. So we were very keen to get people on board, once we put in key partners, BT and VMB in fibre, Ericsson and NSN on transmission, Huawei and Arqiva, then we had 40-50 minor partners, we had 130 people practically living on the roof over the year. So it was a massive effort.”