OpenSignal Examines UK 4G Mobile Speeds vs Spectrum Ownership


Crowd-sourced network analyst firm OpenSignal has conducted a short, albeit very interesting, analysis of how the different amounts and frequencies of radio spectrum owned by 4G mobile operators (Three UK, Vodafone, O2 and EE) can impact mobile broadband speeds across the United Kingdom.

Radio spectrum (not ZX84s..) is the lifeblood of any mobile network operator and if you don’t have enough then your network capacity (including data speeds), as well as coverage, can become seriously compromised. Operators can also further boost their performance by using Carrier Aggregation to combine several different bands together.

Suffice to say that the more radio spectrum bands and frequency an operator owns, the better, although not all bands are the same. For example, lower frequency mobile bands (e.g. 700MHz – 900MHz) deliver signals that travel further and penetrate better through the environment (walls etc.), but there’s also less frequency for operators to play with (smaller slices are auctioned).

By comparison higher frequency bands than those are the opposite and they often come in bigger chunks too (more frequency to distribute), which means they tend to work best as part of a dense urban network where faster speeds may become possible. Likewise owning a big contiguous frequency block in the right band(s) can make all the difference.

Suffice to say that we often highlight spectrum ownership, coverage and maturity of technology as three of the reasons why EE tends to come top in a lot of performance studies (here, here and here etc.). Similarly OpenSignal’s new report appears to confirm the same trend.

The Results

EE was the only operator with the majority of users enjoying speeds faster than 20Mbps, while O2 had the greatest proportion of users experiencing slower speeds. Opensignal examined the 4G mobile network infrastructure which their users connected to, and measured the proportion of cells that utilize different frequency bands across UK mobile operators.

We found that operators exhibit different proportions of cells utilizing various bands, suggesting their 4G deployment strategies were shaped by their respective spectrum holdings,” said the organisation in its unsurprising conclusion.

The study noted how O2 displayed the highest proportion of 4G cells utilizing sub-1GHz bands in their measurements (e.g. 7 out of every 10 cells transmitting data on the 800MHz band), while EE had the lowest proportion of 4G cells using sub-1GHz frequency bands in their tests, but the greatest proportion of LTE cells transmitting on the 1800MHz band.

According to Ofcom, EE still owns a huge 90MHz slice of the 1800MHz band, as well as the biggest single chunk of both 2100MHz (40MHz slice) and the paired 2.6GHz (100MHz slice) band. Suffice to say they’re extremely well positioned for 4G connectivity.

opensignal spectrum vs uk 4g network speeds

By comparison Vodafone and Three UK were a bit more middling in their spectrum distribution. On top of that Three UK has only recently started to re-farm their 2100MHz using 3G band for use on their 4G network. However we’re anticipating a big change when 5G arrives later this year because Three UK has already secured a huge block of 5G friendly spectrum in the 3.4-3.8GHz bands.

You can get a better picture of existing spectrum holdings between the operators by looking at this table from Ofcom.

mobile spectrum holdings uk dec 2018

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