BT's decision to buy EE might have come as a surprise to many, but it seems that the company has been, one might say, obsessed with providing a converged telecommunications solution for nearly 17 years.
BT launched a service called One Phone (not to be confused with Android One, HTC One or OnePlus One) in 1998 (and relaunched it last year). Even back then, the plan was to offer a unified communications ecosystem, bringing together fixed and wireless.
Later in 2004, shortly before the acquisition of BT's former mobile division, Cellnet, by Telefonica (to form O2), the company launched BT Fusion, a phone handset that worked both on mobile and fixed line networks.
The dream was to have a converged, seamless experience that worked regardless of where the user was in physical terms. BT Fusion was widely regarded as a flop but the telecoms company didn't give up and was reportedly investigating femtocells as early as December 2007.
These are small mobile base stations, mini-models of phone masts, and are especially useful for extending mobile connectivity on premises where network signals often fail to reach.
Just over seven years ago, BT said that the stumbling block was price. Fast forward to 2015 and it looks like this is no longer the case, and there are several hints that lead us to believe that the next version of the Home Hub (version 6) is likely to integrate a femtocell.
(Note that most networks on the market have a femtocell solution – Vodafone has Suresignal, Three offers the Home Signal, O2 the BoostBox, and EE has the Signal Box).
In February 2013, BT acquired a 2.6GHz spectrum licence covering a total of 50MHz. The spectrum, BT said, could be used to provide fast 4G connectivity to its customers with "an enhanced range of mobile broadband services" while building on its existing strength in Wi-Fi.
Back then, its former CEO, Lord Livingston, confirmed that they did not intend to build a national network. Instead, he added, that would be used to complement its existing strategy.
All about convergence
Unbeknown to many, BT operates the country's (and the world's) largest Wi-Fi hotspot network, one that was started – guess when – yes, in 2007, and counts more than 14 million access points globally (via the FON network) including five million in the UK and half a million in Greater London alone.
The service is free for BT Broadband customers, more than 7.5 million of them, with 44% on its faster 76Mbps fibre broadband. Buying EE would allow BT to grow that number tremendously and also fulfil its long-term vision of a single converged communications platform.
EE boasts Europe's largest 4G network with more than 7.7 million customers surfing at superfast LTE speeds, and across its mobile, fixed and wholesale businesses, serves 31 million customers (of which 24.5 million are direct mobile customers).
As for the Home Hub 6, it is likely to be launched sometime this year. BT announced its predecessor nearly two years ago and last July, a job advert posted by BT looking for a principal engineer with a proven track record in LTE/4G small cell surfaced.
What was remarkable was that the advert was asking for someone to work in BT's consumer CPE (Consumer Premises Equipment) unit, more specifically, someone who has the acumen and the experience to drive the technical specification and design of "LTE small cell products".
Rolling out hundreds of thousands of Home Hub 6 routers is likely to be an exceedingly complex exercise, but one that could massively boost the mobile coverage of a merged BT/EE as well as enhancing connectivity in-house.
Using its fibre infrastructure would also ensure the sort of resilience that would allow BT to handle current and future demands, especially if it plans to roll out additional services.
Home Hub 6: what we want from it
Which brings us to the last part of the puzzle: Sagemcom. The French company is one of the two ODMs for the current Home Hub 5 (the other being Arcadyan) and gave us a peek at what to expect in 2015 at the International CES in Las Vegas last month.
Of interest to us was the Sagemcom Fast 5360, which is the first media gateway on the market to implement G.Fast, a new Gigabit copper-based technology, which BT has already confirmed will be coming to the UK later this year. Sagemcom's latest hub looks like the ideal starting point on which the Home Hub 6 could be based.
It boasts 802.11ac MU-MIMO, a wireless technology that offers an aggregated speed of up to 1.7Gbps, NFC, Bluetooth, a rackable hard drive enclosure as well as four Gigabit Ethernet ports and two USB ports.
But the best is yet to come, as that router supports high-end triple-play services as well. Other than superfast broadband, BT could potentially offer HD voice to all its customers (thanks to DECT CAT-iq compatibility) as well as 4K-ready content.
What could that mean for BT customers? Well other than BT sports in 4K, there's also the lure of the UK's fastest broadband speeds and possibly bundled mobile minutes/texts/data thanks to the EE deal.
And let's not forget the formidable home automation market (hello Nest) as Sagemcom also positions its router as a home aggregator to avoid any extra box at home. Now if only BT could remove its ridiculously low data allowances on most of its packages, that would be fab.
Expect rivals to move fast though – Talktalk already has plans for 4G femtocells, while Virgin Media, Vodafone and Sky are also likely to follow suit with similar offerings.
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