BT has fallen through a timewarp and introduced a system based on GSM technology – and even resurrected a name used in the last millennium to christen it.
OnePhone is a system aimed at companies with between 20 and 250 employees to give them a single phone that works in both the office and outside. It uses a 2G mobile network installed in your office to provide cloud based PABX facilities and then work seamlessly as a mobile when the worker leaves the building, at which time they will magically roam onto the EE network.
The first time BT used the “OnePhone” name was in 1999 when the company announced, and then a year later shipped, the Ericsson TH688, a dual mode DECT and GSM handset. Like the 2014 incarnation, this was aimed at small to medium sized businesses.
The next time around was BT Fusion in 2008. Again, it used clever technology to allow people to seamlessly move between fixed connections and mobile. Initially the connection was Bluetooth and then evolved to Wi-Fi. This time it was launched as a consumer service... until, that is, it failed. BT Fusion thrashed around as a small business proposition before it went the way of all other things UMA.
What separates the latest BT service from its predecessors is that it doesn’t rely on any special radio technology. It uses 2G, specifically the two 3.3 MHz bands of radio spectrum (the 1781.7 to 1785.0 MHz band, paired with the 1876.7 to 1880.0 MHz band) which were sold in a special auction in 2006.
What made this unusual was that all the winners in the £3.8m auction got exactly the same spectrum, the proviso being that they all had to work together and play nice.
Over the years the licences have changed hands with no one doing very much with them. A company called Coffee Telecom, which intended to use the bands to create roamed hotspots, was bought out by Carphone Warehouse. Cable and Wireless used it to create a private network for Tesco staff. For a brief period of time there was a tiny mobile network in London’s East End called UK01 and there are also rumours of a dedicated network for spooks. Yet no one has actually launched any mass market offerings on the guard bands, as the two spectrum slices are known.
Through all the ownership shuffling BT has amassed two licences, which is about as useful as having two copies of the same book on your shelves.
For the new BT service, however, having a guard band licence is interesting. Because all phones support the frequencies, it doesn’t need the special devices of OnePhone Mk I or of Fusion. When you sign up to the service, BT will install your very own Guardband picocell (made by Huawei) which will then give you great 2G coverage. This is different from the EE SignalBoost or Vodafone SureSignal, both of which are femtocells, in that the picocell covers a much larger area.
Great, a solution... Where's that problem again?
The issue, however, is that most of the world has moved on from 2G and the hardware options for small cells are severely limited. Only IP Access and Huawei make anything suitable and the Huawei device is really designed for deployments larger than BT is targeting. It will work well in a campus environment, though, which is also in the company’s list of target customers.
What’s surprising about the announcement is that it uses the guard band at all. Even with two licences, BT paid peanuts for the spectrum. By contrast the company paid over £180m for its 2.6GHz 4G spectrum and it was widely expected that the first fruits of that would be seen through its MVNO deal with EE.
There is still lots of clever stuff going on in the radio network. Integrating the BT mobile network with the EE one is a bit like roaming from one country to another and making the billing follow you – and that's non-trivial.
VoLTE-face, by yet another name
Shifting to 2G isn’t a quick reaction to the obvious problems of voice on 4G, it’s something which will have been in the works for a very long time. You have to expect that BT will, in time, want to use at least some of its guard band deployments as 4G, and the company has said that it is taking part in the Ofcom negotiations on this. In time BT might switch customers to its guard bands and the 2.6GHz 4G, but for the moment it is saying it sees a long future in 2G running EDGE for data.
There are other solutions to the same problem. One Phone is solving Vodafone offers OneNet which gives landline and PABX functions to mobiles, and Ericsson had the Radio Dot system which improves in-building coverage and will do so over all technologies.
BT claims that the solution it is offering is the result of extensive market research. It believes that having a wide selection of handsets from Samsung, HTC, Nokia and particularly BlackBerry will help. What’s yet to be proved is that anyone wants the complex call control and flexibility of a full PABX on their mobile. Indeed, history would show that they do not. ®