Posted on Wednesday 8 January 2014 by Ulster Business
EE's Gerry McQuade and Stuart Carson from its NI partner Rainbow.
The fourth generation mobile communication network will give people faster mobile internet on their phone, tablet or laptop, helping them to work on the move, increase efficiency and save money.
Cynics might expect that Northern Ireland would have to wait for such technology to be available, an afterthought for the London-centric mobile network operators.
But in fact it is now a year since EE, the first network to do a major 4G network rollout, began offering 4G in Northern Ireland.
Formed in 2010 through a merger of major mobile brands Orange and T-Mobile, EE has committed to investing £1.5bn over three years to rollout superfast 4G mobile services to 117 towns and cities, and is aiming to reach 98% of the UK population by the end of 2014.
EE's tongue in cheek adverts featuring 80s film star Kevin Bacon are aimed at letting consumers know what it can mean for them, showing how 4G lets you watch movies at home or on the go, seamlessly transitioning from one device to another.
But 4G also has major implications for businesses – large and small – and that's why EE has partnered with Rainbow Communications in Northern Ireland.
Headquartered in Belfast and with offices in Glasgow, Rainbow currently employs 80 staff and offers calls and lines, mobiles, broadband, inbound, systems, VoIP, cloud telephony, data and IT Services to 5,500 businesses in the UK and Ireland.
It is the main rival to BT in the local business to business market and CEO Eric Carson believes the partnership confirms its market leader status.
"4G is a great headline product. EE are the only network investing in it across the UK and it is great for us to be selected as their only direct partner here," he said.
"We see it as a major endorsement that they took an in-depth look at our business and decided we were the ones to run with."
Unlike other re-sellers of EE, Rainbow has direct access to EE so it can offer better deals and can go to EE with faults and billing queries without a middle man.
The partnership is already proving a success for Rainbow – helping it to expand its offices and form a new data and IT division – and also for EE, says Gerry McQuade, EE's head of non-consumer mobile business.
"The partnership is massively important. A lot of small businesses like working with other small businesses, who they feel will understand the issues that they have. We've always seen the B2B channel as really important and Rainbow are doing a great job for us in Northern Ireland," he said.
McQuade says EE has exceeded its ambitious targets for its first year, with around one million customers signed up across the UK including 3,000 corporates and 200,000 small businesses.
"It has a lot of relevance and utility for businesses and so we're seeing exactly the same level of interest and take up in Northern Ireland as in places like London," he said.
Having started 4G coverage in Greater Belfast last year – introduced it at Lough Erne for the G8 – EE is now planning to roll out 4G to more locations.
"We wanted to make sure we didn't make the same mistake the industry made when we rolled out 3G. A lot of the networks started very London specific. We paid a price for that because there was national advertising and yet most people couldn't share in it," explains McQuade.
"That's why every major city in the UK was on our start list. Belfast was part of that as were all the other cities in the north of England and Scotland. Our next target is to roll it out to towns with more than 30,000 people which should happen by the end of next year. It doesn't matter where that is in the country. For example Londonderry is on the plan for early next year to be covered."
The EE executive says it has "probably already achieved what it took the networks five years to do with 3G" and it has also invested in upgrading its 2G and 3G networks to ensure a strong overall service.
"We'll keep our foot on that pedal. Both businesses and consumers are picking it up really fast so we can't stop it, we have to keep delivering."
Rainbow Sales and Marketing Director Stuart Carson sees EE's decision to provide 4G here as a vote of confidence, but as a company that sells all of the networks he is disappointed there is no sign of competition.
"EE have the largest network and they've taken the risk of investing in Northern Ireland with 4G. There are no plans that can be drawn from Vodafone and O2 as to when they are even thinking about Northern Ireland," he explains.
"So we are positioned way ahead of the game, not only from a technology point of view but from a network point of view. There's nobody else that can offer the 4G service here."
Rainbow believes that 4G has a massive role to play in filling in the gaps in the fibre-to-the-cabinet broadband network, which is "severely lacking" in key parts of Belfast.
"There are vast swathes of Belfast that aren't covered. BT have failed to enable the cabinets in places like Heron Road and the centre of the city – BT1 – because the funds they got were really to drive the rollout to rural areas and the residential areas, which we think was rather cynically to help with BT Sport," adds director Martin Hamill.
"We have devised a solution that enables us to deliver the equivalent of fibre-to-the cabinet to the areas of Belfast where fibre doesn't exist. It does everything fiber to the cabinet does and more because you are not on a fixed line. 4G brings faster speeds and more flexibility."
The big advantage of 4G is that it helps companies to mobilise their workforce.
EE says take-up has ranged from big businesses using 4G for specific parts of their workforce such as their sales force, executives or engineers, to small businesses such as electricians and gas fitters who have all of their staff on the road.
"For a construction company it could be about getting access to data on site from day one, rather than waiting for a fixed line. 4G lets them mimic a fixed line so they don't need to order one. It can do everything for as many people as they are likely to have using it," says McQuade.
"We have another customer, London Air Ambulance, where the quicker access to information is taking minutes off their time to get to patients who are in trauma. They want reliable mobile access to information that 3G didn't have the depth of capability to enable," he adds.
"Whether its information or video you want to put up or download, from sales people to someone out filming HD video who wants to get that back to the studio, 4G helps you mobilise your workforce and that's what adds value to the business."
Rainbow notes that under the plans it offers, not every user in a company has to be signed up for 4G services because in both SMEs and large corporations not everyone needs access yet.
But Gerry McQuade believes that with the rise of bandwidth-hungry services and increased video content, more people will soon need 4G, which will push prices down and make it viable for more customers.
"The percentage of sales of 4G are going to rise and rise," he predicts. "I think we're going to be in a situation very quickly where all handsets at all prices are going to be 4G. The premium, particularly for businesses, is tiny. And I think you'll see the first £100 handset relatively soon too. Once you have that it will become more the norm than the exception."
As an example of just how revolutionary 4G could be, Stuart Carson notes that current broadband at best provides average speeds of 30MB to users while EE has already launched 4G with speeds of 300MB in London.
The 4G rollout is happening at a time when Rainbow has created a new team to sell a cloud telephony – a VoIP solution that allows a user to be totally mobile, with seamless movement of voice calls from one device to another. Linking via Wifi a user can use their own number anywhere, even in other countries.
The company has also invested over £500,000 in its sales operation in Scotland and will employ more people in 2014, with further plans to expand south into England.
"Once we're comfortable with our growth in Scotland we'll look at where we go to next. It's got to be either new services or outside of Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is a very small marketplace – 2% of the UK telecoms market. We've built a good customer base of over 5,500 and with the technology we have now we can still use Northern Ireland as our core activity," says Eric Carson.
While the Rainbow team are confident about the future and excited about the roll out of 4G they still believe the industry needs more support from politicians.
While much has been made by the DETI-backed spending on broadband rollout and money is now being spent to get coverage to so-called "not spots", Eric says there has been little real support for roll out of the 4G network.
Politicians have in the past complained about new mobile masts being introduced and complained about the lack of coverage in rural areas, but he says they can't have it both ways.
"If we want to have a world class communications network we have to do something about it and mobile is a large part of it. I would ask our politicians what are they prepared to do for business. They need to be prepared to make tough decisions to allow those networks to be built."