Analysis

4G victory was technical, not political

Jennifer Scott

It was looking like it would be this time next year before mobile operators other than EE – formerly Everything Everywhere – were able to offer 4G.

The merger between T-Mobile and Orange was the only brand to receive a blessing from regulators to repurpose its existing 1,800MHz spectrum allocation for the faster mobile connection. As the timetable stood, that meant EE could have been the only brand to offer 4G on our shores for over a year.

However, Ofcom and the department for media, culture and sport (DCMS) have announced that competition for 4G will come to the UK sooner than expected.

Celebrations rang out and champagne corks were popped, all in praise of the newly instated culture minister Maria Miller who had achieved what Jeremy Hunt never could – peace in the mobile industry.

Except that is not the truth. The ceasefire came about not because of Miller’s efforts to appease rival operators such as O2 and Vodafone, which were frantically waving lawyers in their direction. It was down to hard work from the teams tasked with clearing that spectrum from its previous use, namely Arqiva and DigitalUK.

Spectrum will be ready for 4G in May 2013 – five months earlier than expected

Spectrum clearing ahead of schedule

As it stands, two frequency bands of spectrum are due to be auctioned by Ofcom later this year. These bands – 800MHz and 2.6GHZ – were made available as a result of the analogue to digital television switchover, freeing up the spectrum to be used for another purpose.

However, one should empty the tank before they fill it up again, and regardless of when Ofcom held the auction, the spectrum would not be ready for use until all the services which previously ran over the frequencies had been cleared.

This was not due for completion until October 2013, to the great frustration of operators and regulators alike. But Ofcom confirmed yesterday that “significant progress” had been made in both the digital switchover and the clearing process itself, so spectrum would be ready for 4G in May 2013 – five months earlier than expected.

The DCMS leapt on this announcement to show how hard it had been working with mobile operators to remove the tensions and ensure competition would be able to run free as soon as possible for 4G services.

However, as a spokesman from Ofcom pointed out, this change would have happened “irrespective of the meetings taking place” between Miller, Ofcom and the operators, as it was about the technicality of freeing up spectrum, not negotiations on auction dates or rules.

It is no simple feat rolling out a new layer of mobile network, so the process will still be a long one

4G delivery still some way off

The long debated auction of spectrum is “largely unchanged”, according to the same Ofcom spokesman, and we can see the timetable has remained the same, with the process beginning in December and bidding starting in January.  

It will then take at least a month for the bidding to conclude and then the operators will have to twiddle their thumbs until May before they can get their hands on their spectrum prizes.

Finally, it will depend on how quickly the likes of Vodafone, O2 and 3 can get their acts together and start the process of rolling out 4G services.

It has been a month since EE got the go-ahead to roll out its 4G services, but offerings have yet to surface. An executive at the firm told Computer Weekly it was still testing its 4G network in four trial cities – London, Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff – to iron out any problems.

Mobile operators need to know what frequencies they will have before they can invest in the right infrastructure and technology. Then they will have to wait until they get their hands on that spectrum before they can start testing it to ensure it is up to scratch for customers. Once that is done, they can begin the roll-out before finally offering it as a service to the public.

EE already knew what spectrum it owned, had been testing the capabilities for months, and has subsequently had a fair amount of time to roll out the necessary kit, yet it has still to go live a month after it got permission to.

Although EE faced political pressures that its rivals will not, which may have held its roll-out back, the point is it is no simple feat rolling out a new layer of mobile network, so the process will still be a long one.

The fact that the clearing of the spectrum has been sped up dramatically can only be a good thing for consumers and the operators, which will have a much better opportunity to deliver 4G services as soon as possible, encouraging a competitive market – and hopefully a price war to get us the best deal.

But this was a technology victory, not a political one, whoever tries to claim the credit.


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