In a surprising move BT have announced plans to return to the mobile market and launch their own 4G network, or at least that’s the impression their chief executive Ian Livingston gave in a recent interview with The Telegraph. This is big news, not just from a 4G perspective but for mobile in general. After all it’s been a long time since a major network launched, for years now your choices have been pretty much limited to O2, EE, Vodafone or Three. Having a fifth choice has the potential to really shake things up, and being new to the scene BT may also have a fresh eye and approach things differently.
Of course BT isn’t totally new to the mobile market. There was a time when they owned O2, but they sold the company off to Telefónica UK back in 2002. Since then they’ve stuck to fixed landlines (along with broadband and a more recent foray into TV).
Livingston told The Telegraph that it was “highly possible” that by the middle of next year BT will have a live mobile network. This may seem to have come out of nowhere but then BT were a surprise fifth bidder during the 4G spectrum auction back in February, so there’s every chance that this has been in the pipeline for some time.
BT also already have much of the needed infrastructure, as BT’s Home Hub Wi-Fi routers could be used to carry a 4G signal- thereby boosting coverage indoors. “We can build effectively an internal, very cheap 4G network” Livingston stated.
BT can also make use of their extensive Wi-Fi hotspot network to provide 4G access. For outdoor areas where there isn’t already a BT device in play the network will likely partner with an existing mobile operator to provide coverage. “When you’re out and about you just roam on to the [mobile operator] network,” Livingston explained.
Though no announcements have been made as to who that mobile operator might be O2 certainly seem like the obvious choice, given that BT once owned them and that since then the two companies have had a co-operative relationship. Indeed BT has recently signed a 10 year deal with O2 to help boost their network capacity.
Not only will BT’s existing infrastructure cut costs when launching a 4G network, it will also save customers some money Livingston suggested, as they would be able to make use of BT Wi-Fi hotspots in many locations to download large amounts of data, thereby allowing them to get by with a lower data allowance on their contract - and the lower prices that would come with that.
Despite a likely partnership between the two companies this will come as a blow to O2, who currently have a deal with BT whereby their customers can use BT hotspots - a deal which won’t be renewed when it expires in July, presumably in part because BT want them to be exclusive to their own future network.