Variety Will Spice Up the UK’s 4G Market

A Trip to the Westfield Shopping Centre Reveals Different Approaches to Selling 4G

All the UK’s networks have now shown their opening hands for 4G services, so I decided to compare how they’re selling them on the high street.

Clear communication in the shops will be essential in convincing an audience still struggling to understand the true benefits of 4G and getting to grips with new ways of charging for data. With this in mind, last week I visited each operator’s retail outlet at London’s Westfield shopping centre.

Vodafone’s approach was immediately obvious. The operator, which spent the most in February’s auction, is putting deals with Sky Sports and Spotify at the heart of its marketing. They featured prominently on large in-store posters and promotional brochures and formed the dominant topic in my conversations with sales staff.

The deals are attractive, particularly as they are available on all 4G price plans and should set Vodafone apart from its rivals. However, Vodafone’s main challenge is that its coverage at launch will be limited to just London. It needs to be careful not to over-hype expectations in national advertising and ensure that stores outside the capital do not begin to heavily promote the service too soon.

I was disappointed at how little I saw or heard about 4G in the O2 shop. The operator announced its launch plans more than two weeks before my visit, but there was nothing about the upcoming switch-on that might have enticed me to enquire about the service. The main focus was on O2 Refresh and O2 Tracks and although these will form major elements of the operator’s 4G service, I saw nothing in their promotion to suggest that.

The limited communication I saw in the store mirrored O2’s generally very low-key messages on its Web site and in the press. It will need to carefully consider how it markets 4G in light of the multiple brands it’s already using. These include Tu Go, Refresh, Tracks, Priority Moments and O2 Wallet.

Unsurprisingly, the staff in the EE store were quick to inform me about the network’s superior coverage and speed. It now extends to about 60 percent of the UK population and should reach 98 percent next year. EE can also boast the fastest LTE speeds in the UK — last month it doubled the amount of bandwidth it is dedicating to the technology.

The sales assistant I spoke to showed me speed test results of over 40 Mbps and explained how this considerably enhanced using services like YouTube and iPlayer on a mobile device. My own experience testifies that EE offers hugely impressive 4G speeds and that its network and spectrum holding represent a significant competitive advantage.

However, as rivals launch new services, I feel EE should be making more of features such as Deezer Mobile, Clone Phone, EE Film and inclusive Wi-Fi. These could prove vital should the battle for 4G subscribers start to revolve around content. A focus on speed alone may then not be enough to win new customers.

As expected, the assistants in the 3 store preferred to focus on the merits of unlimited data rather than the launch of 4G, slated for the fourth quarter. The operator is using the term Ultrafast to encompass both dual carrier (DC) HSDPA and 4G, a move that EE’s CEO, Olaf Swantee, has criticised for confusing potential buyers. Cleverly, 3 claims to offer “3.9G” services and has vowed to keep prices the same when it switches on its LTE network. This move is consistent with its disruptive strategy in the UK mobile market.

As the UK’s operators prepare to switch on or expand their LTE networks, I’m sure the wide variety of approaches I saw in Westfield will help ensure the country becomes one of the most competitive European markets for 4G services.