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UK01 the new kid on the MNO block

So who’s heard of UK01? Probably not many people, but that’s all about to change.

UK01 is a new mobile network run by Mapesbury Communications. They are one of the 12 winners of a low power GSM Guard Band license that Ofcom auctioned a few years ago.

It’s not been plain sailing, becoming a Mobile Network Operator is not an easy path to go down – especially since the existing MNOs are not to keen on getting more competition and have ensured that every regulatory hurdle has been pursued with vigor.

Magnus Kelly the CEO of UK01 has jumped over every fence put in his way (or gone around it, or just knocked it over) – whatever has worked to get the network ready to launch. Ofcom and the MNO legal bods are now very familiar with him, but they are still not quite there, T-Mobile wont agree on termination rates and the matter has gone to Ofcom and it may well still go to court.

In the mean time, UK01 now has full interconnect with O2, Vodafone, Orange and 3. They also have roaming agreements with several foreign operators
with more coming on-line all the time. It would be great if the MNOs would offer roaming with UK01, but then it would also be great if all calls were free!!

So where are they?

UK01 are not going to roll-out a national mobile network, the technology would require a huge number of cell sites (the low power networks are limited to 200mW compared to 10’s of Watts for the MNOs) so each cell site only covers a small area – up to maybe 1/2 mile with optimal conditions. UK01’s cell sites are actually lower power than a normal mobile phone for anyone thinking about the health issues.

The model UK01 have adopted is to roll-out GSM “hot zones”, rather like WiFi hot spots but covering a larger area. Since the company is based in Watford, it’s not surprising that the initial network testing has taken place there (so anyone wondering around Watford Junction might happen on UK01 appearing on their phones mysteriously).

However the initial roll-out proper is taking place in Newham in London. Mapesbury applied for and obtained code powers which allows them to site equipment in the street (like cell towers), since the radio equipment for low power GSM is very compact a cell tower is nothing more than a pole with a lump on the end, much like a lamp post. The main locations for cell sites aren’t going to be poles but buildings. UK01 will pay building owners (which can be homes or businesses) for the privilige of hosting a cell which comes in a self-contained box about 18 inches by 12 inches. The building owner can provide just power or power and broadband (provided by UK01).

The cell site actually contains a pico-cell and two 5.8GHz radios. 5.8GHz is a licensed band, so though there is no radio protection from other licensed users, random interference shouldn’t be a problem (and if it is then Ofcom can take action against unlicensed users). The 5.8GHz radios are used for “talking” to other cells in the area and they form a resilient mesh network. All the GSM traffic is actually sent over IP back over the mesh and then back into the GSM network via a broadband link (or multiple links).

Making a call

It will be possible to purchase a UK01 SIM which will work in any unlocked GSM phone, however it’s expected that most users will just set their phone to manual network selection and then manually select UK01.

The genius of the UK01 system is that when a phone tries to register on the network, the system will always accept the registration. UK01 will then SMS a message to the phone with a UK01 allocated mobile number. The phone can immediately receive calls on that number.

The user can then go the UK01 website and buy credit so that outgoing calls can also be made. Outgoing calls will be extremely competitively priced, especially for calls made outside the UK. Vouchers will also be available for sale at local merchant points which will also enable users to buy credit.

UK01 is a real GSM network

Though only offering local service via hot zones, UK01 is a true GSM network (and in future may also offer GPRS and other data services). They have all the back-end equipment that the “big boys” have and are members of the GSMA (GSM Association). UK01 also directly interconnects to the Police so 999/112 calls can be made over UK01’s network (and provide location based services about the phone’s location).

The service is about to go live – the existing MNO’s may have a localised fight on their hands.

By Steve Kennedy

I have over 20 years' experience in the Telecoms/Internet/Mobile industries. I was involved with internet in the UK before it had a commercial presence, internet streaming from its beginning (he was the first UK Real Networks customer), and set-up the first Internet Dance Radio Station (Gaialive.com). I was also involved with the first netcast of BigBrother (UK).

I am an acknowledged "independent Industry expert" and uses those abilities in consulting and working with a number of investment partners on various projects. I also am a freelance journalist writing on technology subjects.

I'm also a Director of UKEC Ltd - the UK ENUM Consortium that is the governing body for ENUM in the UK.

20 replies on “UK01 the new kid on the MNO block”

No – Rabbit was a 'One Way' service – offering outbound calls only – AND Rabbit handsets were good for only one thing – i.e. working through Rabbit base stations.

The big advantage that UK01 offers is that it will work with virtually any GSM handset that is within range of a Mapesbury cell, but the same handset can also operate as a 'normal' GSM handset in other areas.

This technology is particularly useful for those who are lucky enough to live in the rural wilds – where GSM signals just do not get to. In these scenarios one can deploy a UK01 cell to cover your residence and surrounding environs which will offer high quality service to all those GSM users that wander into range.

Whilst I am a great exponent of mobile VoIP over WiFi, the GSM Femtocell approach does have one major attraction – in that you do not have to possess a dual mode WiFi/GSM handset to operate!

Thanks James. Looking at UK01's tariff structures and initial deployment It does seem they are targetting the same market as Lycamobile. I do agree with you though that it has a natural advantage in rural communities.

Eh? A Femtocell needs a broadband connection to an MNO core. No WiFi involved anywhere. Are you confusing Femto with UMA? <cue Dean Bubley>

I disagree with James and reassert Tim's point – this is *exactly* like Rabbit. But worse – You are not only asking users to go to a set location to make/receive calls at the discounted tariff, you have to manually rescan for networks. How many people are going to do that?

They are solving a problem not many people have. International calling rates from mobiles have dropped like a stone compared to what they used to be, and will go further as MNO's merge and are forced to stop milking that cash cow (cf: Voda passport, other initiatives in the wings). And Skype makes calls dirt cheap-to-free as well. Skypeout on mobile is here already, meaning you can call any international number for a few p per minute, or any number of countries, for as long as you like, for a few quid.

Already UK01's only proposition is dead in the water.

Poor people don't call overseas much anyway, wealthy people or business folk don't care, and certainly won't be arsed locating and traveling to location x, rescanning for another network, then making the call. Unless they are lucky enough to have coverage where they live or work (very unlikely given the low power/high-frequency 1800MHz spectrum involved) you will have to be in acar to be comfy having a long conversation.

UK01's whole business model is reliant on a major change in user behavior and the established MNO's sitting still.

I'm just not seeing any reason for cheerfulness here.

/m

Mike42 says: 'you have to manually rescan for networks'

Are you sure that this is the case? My understanding of the 'default config' of most current service offerings is that the handset *WILL* attempt to register on a foreign network unless specifically directed not to. Simply put, a handset with a Vodafone SIM will automatically attempt to register as a roaming user on the UK01 VLR – and if the VLR accepts the registration AND suitable roaming agreements are in place, any calls from the 'Home' network (in this example Vodafone) will be forwarded througgh UK01 to the roaming handset.

Have I missed something here? If so – what?

I'm going to ignore their business strategy, as that's being commented on very aptly by the above posters, and say that this is a perfect example of the sort of absolute bollocks that companies in the UK have to go through in order to do anything even slightly innovative.

If it competes with the big four, you're out.

I'd like to see a Truphone UK01 mashup and I'd like to see UK01 downsize their boxes and make them in-home stations. They pay up to £300 / year to locate a cell on your property, I'd pay that for one if it gave me a reliable signal and I could roam onto it from my O2 SIM!

Boxes are currently based on an IP.Access GSM radio (about 1/2 a rugby ball sized) a nd dual 5.8GHz radios.

When someone comes out with a GSM femtocell things will change (currently most dev effort is on 3G picocells) and small boxes will emerge.

The current market is the “Ethnic hotspot” where currently people use international calling cards. This is a simple replacement. In future other interesting markets may be addressed, but it's a matter of getting the network in place first.

Step back:

You can make nearly-free calls to just about anywhere on your home phone, using various flavours of calling cards and IP telephony services. Some need broadband, some don't.

Some services work on mobiles. Skype, Truphone, Fring, again, some calling cards that use up bundled minutes by calling local access numbers, effectively free at the time of calling.

So there is actually a veritable plethora of ways of cutting your international bill to sod all. And in the UK, on-net and bundled cross-net calling has been so cheap for ages that few go over their allocated minutes. Even if you added another zero to most packages inclusive minutes the increase in actual use would be zip. Many people are now time-starved, not expense- or inclusive-minutes limited.

The 'Big 4' (and their customers / shareholders – us, as most of our pensions have a stake or two in them) have spent billions to build the networks, acquire licences and subsidise handsets. We all enjoy the fruits of rigid standardisation, tightly-controlled spectrum management and robust radio planning processes within MNO's. Dropped calls are few and far between for most folks – the national average being somewhere south of 2 in every 100. The devices and networks are designed to work on the macro umbrella cell + microcell + in-building Picocell model. All mashing together happily in the core in a feast of robust intercell handoffs and the like.

OK, fast-forward to Dan's utopia of build-your-own GSM/UMTS love.

<Cry nervous the RF Engineering managers and let slip the avenging Dean Bubleys of radio spectrum planning reality>

What is at stake is the stability of the mobile network experience. Dan often bemoans his O2 coverage: what if it was fine – until his neighbour got a new Femto / UK01 box-thingy, then Dan found his handset continuously trying to camp onto it, or having its Ec/Io (if it's 3G) or his S/N figures go through the floor due to receiver noise rise? End result = dropped calls, all because your neighbour installed a consumer-grade piece of radio hardware.

Now I'm wildly simplifying things here, and am fast getting out of my comfort zone RF-geekery-wise, but fundamentally I'd prefer a stable, well-managed system that my neighbour and his network du jour hardware couldn't f@ck up.

MNO's are looking at Femtos to alleviate macro-cell load as 3G data use ramps up, and to offer customers newer, cooler ways to shift and consume content. Femto's will get there, I'm sure. But it needs to be done softly-softly. The implications of getting it wrong, in a world of high-rise glass-fronted apartments are just too scary to contemplate.

<disclaimer> I once spent weeks chasing down a single person who was using an unlicencsed £50 'mobile booster' to improve his home coverage. Yes, he did indeed get better performance, but the 5,000 other people in his neighbourhood were mighty pissed at the huge increase in dropped calls as a result of his turning on a device with scant regard for sound RF planning principles. Yes, any commercial development would no doubt be licenced. But the 'absolute bollocks' process to get to market KNOWING the new device would 100% not screw anyone else up is the price startups have to pay to be innovative.

/m

Ahh no, I'm not advocating less strictly controlled airwaves! If anything I think they should be more tightly controlled as to who should be able to do what with them.

The UK01 license allows them to operate low power services on a specific guard band (that is the “empty” buffer spectrum between two licensed bands) and that's fine for a little picocell based service (the “Private Mobile Network” box that my colleague Jay Fenton reviewed on this very site for example).

The problem is that UK01 are taking the technology and spectrum that is available to them and creating a service that is entirely unsuitable for it. They would be much better off selling locked down IP.Access boxes for people to use in their home and roam onto when at home. I'd buy one if I could hook it into my PBX in the office so my sales guys could use their mobile but take advantage of VoIP rates for international calls.

My 'absolute bollocks' statement was more to do with the lack of interconnect on T-Mobile's part, these bullying tactics from the four main MNOs are something that we see again and again when plucky young upstart companies try and do innovative things… take Truphone or Three as examples of recent victims!

UK01 are addressing a specific market that they feel will drive their revenues, there are already companies that are addressing the PBX market, but I can see UK01 offering service in that area when the price of pico/femto cells make it affordable.

UK01 are also likely to offer some interesting VoIP solutions …

And of course who could forget this timeless hit:

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