When I was in Paris recently I was very much surprised to see that Free Mobile has an LTE carrier in the European Digital Dividend II 700 MHz band on air. In Germany, this band was also auctioned to network operators back in 2015 but there are no deployments so far. At first I thought this might be a mistake on my part or a that I stumbled over a test cell. Some more digging revealed, however, that Free has really taken the band into operation. According to the Wikipedia LTE Networks in Europe page, DNA in Finland has also started using the band. Is anyone aware of any other European network operator that has started using 700 MHz spectrum?
According to this and this source, Free started rolling out 700 MHz cells in 2016. An interesting map in the first reference shows where the 700 MHz band, which is refarmed TV spectrum can already be used. So far this is mainly in Paris and a few rural territories. Obviously this will help Free a lot as they don’t have any spectrum in the 800 MHz band according to Wikipedia and I also didn’t detect a carrier with their MNC in Paris on that band.
The eARFCN used for the carrier is 9460 which belongs to LTE band 28. This band has originally been created for the Asia Pacific region and 35 MHz of it overlap with the European Digital Dividend II region. So it looks like the band was reused for this purpose as well.
I also had a quick look which mobile devices support band 28 today. There seems to be little support in older devices and current devices in the low and mid-tier segment. Recent high end models, e.g. from Apple, Samsung and probably others as well do support the band and are marketed on the Free website. Obviously the so far still limited band 28 support is not ideal for them as they are positioning themselves as a cheaper alternative to the other network operators. Customers buying cheaper devices will thus not benefit from the better in-house and rural coverage the band offers. And most people will only find out once they are somewhere where someone with a high end device has reception while they don’t.
In addition, they have another carrier on 2600 MHz on air in Paris. Since May 2016, they also a 15 MHz chunk in the 1800 MHz band which I haven’t observed at my location yet. Together that’s 45 MHz of spectrum they can use in France.