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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.

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