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What are BT's 4G plans?

With reports suggesting BT's mobile network is falling behind, we ask how the company's 4G plans are different to the rest of the pack.


Look out EE, Vodafone, Three and O2: BT is coming for your mobile phone customers. But as reports say BT faces delays as it struggles to marry 4G and Wi-Fi networks, what actually are the company's plans for a mobile network?

The Telegraph reported this week that BT's plans for a mobile network have been delayed by technical issues. BT denies this, a spokesperson telling me, "We have always been very clear that it will take the best part of two years to develop our consumer femtocell service and this remains the case."

BT's strategy is to create a mobile network made up of a number of overlapping systems that carry voice and data, and as you move between them you're switched from one to the other. If you're browsing, you won't notice the switchover, and in theory, the same will be true even when you're actually talking on the phone.

If your phone can switch you from a voice call to Wi-Fi, then potentially the call would get a lot cheaper -- but that depends on how BT will charge for the service, which is still a long way off.

BT chief executive Gavin Patterson revealed the company's plans for a mobile network at a financial presentation in May. Identifying the exploding use of data and changes in regulation as "trends moving in our direction", Patterson outlined the overall strategy of using Wi-Fi and 4G to create a "seamless" network that "works wherever you are and creates the best possible connection".

The company already has a national network of Wi-Fi hotspots. It also has a deal with the UK's first 4G network, EE, for access to 4G data and 3G for data and voice calling (at the moment, 4G doesn't do voice calls).

Rounding out the picture, BT also splashed out £186 million on a chunk of LTE spectrum in last year's 4G auction. BT owns 2x15MHz of FDD and 20MHz of TDD 2.6GHz spectrum with no time limit on its ownership. Announcing the purchase, BT's boss Ian Livingstone said at the time it would use the spectrum to bolster its existing Wi-Fi network.

"BT is still trying to work out what to do with what's going on in its market," industry observer Shaun Collins of CCS Insight told CNET earlier this year when the EE deal was struck. "4G must be in its thinking -- I think it's almost inevitable we'll see a more productive and more high-profile mobile offering from BT, whether it's as an MVNO or using its own 2.6GHz spectrum."

If BT wants to get in on the mobile action, it shouldn't hang about: the arrival of 4G is the biggest shakeup to arrive in years, and the networks are keen to grab as many customers as possible by offering competitive prices and assorted extra perks with their contracts. In those competitive conditions it'll be tough for a new entrant to be successful. BT's big selling point is its overlapping network of 4G and Wi-Fi, but the other networks are working on that too: O2's Tu Go app and Three's InTouch app let you make calls over Wi-Fi, and EE also wants to have calls seamlessly switch from a voice calls to Wi-Fi without you even noticing.

BT has been out of the mobile market for more than a decade. Back in 1985 it was the joint owner of Cellnet, which later became BT Cellnet before it was sold in 2002 to become O2.