There is no question that 2013 has been a big year when it comes to mobile networking, centred mostly on two little characters – 4G.
With spectrum auctions, new mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and battles over price hikes, the fight is on in the UK for mobile providers to secure customers and move the public on to the next generation of mobile data connectivity.
Computer Weekly takes a look back over the past 12 months at the top stories hitting the headlines for those involved in this lucrative but legislation-laden industry.
In the first two months of the year, the challenge was posed to make the UK a 4G connected nation after Ofcom confirmed the winners of its spectrum auction.
Vodafone, O2 and Three were all successful in their bids, but the surprise winner was BT, which managed to secure three lots of spectrum for just over £186m.
The process had been criticised for taking too long, leaving the UK behind other countries when it came to mobile connectivity, but with EE already serving the public with a 4G network and the other operators promising their services would go live by the end of the year, the stage was set for an exciting 2013.
In July, UK supermarket Sainsbury’s announced it would launch its own mobile services by partnering with Vodafone.
Mobile by Sainsbury’s is a 50/50 joint venture between the two firms, led by a management team of executives from both sides, and run as a virtual network over Vodafone’s existing infrastructure.
The retailer hopes its large customer base, footprint of stores across the UK and online presence, merged with Vodafone’s technology, will be a solid springboard for the new service, despite entering an already crowded market.
The wait may have been a long one, but following the spectrum auction and clearance of the frequencies in the summer, 29 August saw both Vodafone and O2 launch their own 4G services.
London, Leeds and Bradford were the first cities to receive 4G services from O2, while Vodafone confirmed it would be available initially in parts of London, before expanding to 12 other UK cities by the end of the year.
It may have been an up and down year for BlackBerry, with anti-climactic launches, changing senior management and financial results putting fear into investors.
However, the newly appointed CEO of the struggling firm, John Chen, made a promise at the end of 2013 to go back to its mobile networking roots and focus on the enterprise systems BlackBerry built its name from.
“Our ‘for sale’ sign has been taken down and we are here to stay,” he wrote in an open letter to customers. “The investments you’ve made in BlackBerry infrastructure and solutions are secure. I will keep the lines of communication open as we navigate through this transition.”
After spending millions of pounds in the spectrum auction at the start of the year and preparing to spend millions more on building their 4G networks, the last thing mobile operators wanted to hear was they would have to pay even more to the telecoms regulator.
But, in October, Ofcom announced it has opened a consultation, suggesting the yearly fee for spectrum licenses should dramatically increase. It proposed the 900MHz band should rise from £24.8m to £138.5m and the charge for the 1,800MHz band should increase from £39.7m to £170.4m.
The consultation was due to close by the end of the year, meaning the big mobile providers will find out in 2014 whether they have yet another cheque to write.
While others were concerning themselves with the networks of now, Chinese firm Huawei was making proposals about the next generation of mobile broadband networks.
In November, it announced plans to invest at least $600m in research and development (R&D) for 5G technologies by 2018.
The R&D investment will cover a range of key technologies for the next generation of mobile networks, including research into air-interface technology.
Huawei predicted the first 5G networks would be ready for commercial deployment from 2020 and deliver peak data rates of over 10Gbps – 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks.
While Huawei was future gazing, other firms were showing off the capabilities of their networks in 2013.
EE switched on its superfast 4G network in London’s Tech City, promising to deliver speeds of 300Mbps to mobile devices.
The operator first announced the network in November 2013 at the Huawei Global Mobile Broadband Forum, as it continued its hardware partnership with Huawei for routers. However, it chose the three-year anniversary of the Tech City organisation to go live.
EE has promised to debut any new network innovations in the East London locale and offer bespoke packages for Tech City accredited businesses, giving them discounts on their line rental, mobile broadband and accessories.
This year saw roaming charges continue to decrease across the continent as the European Union continued to put pressure on mobile operators to lower costs.
However, the first strong commitment of the UK government also surfaced towards the end of the year when the government signed an agreement with four of the UK’s major mobile operators pledging their support in scrapping mobile roaming charges by 2016.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has signed the formal agreement with EE, Three, Virgin Media and Vodafone, following the government department’s pledge in September 2013 to create a Telecoms Consumer Action Plan including the issue.
However, O2 refused to put down its signature, claiming it needed more “clarity” on what the proposals would mean for its future business before committing.
While much of the focus in rural areas has been about getting fibre to people’s doors, 2013 saw the need for mobile signal brought to the forefront.
The Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) received state aid funding clearance from the European Commission in December, enabling the government to provide £150m to increase signal for "not spot" areas that receive little or no mobile phone coverage.
As a result, in May the DCMS awarded Arqiva the contract to boost rural mobile coverage across the UK.
All four of the major mobile operators agreed to provide their services over the infrastructure, giving more choice to citizens once the project is completed.
It may have been the last operator to join the race, but by the end of 2013 Three announced it was beginning a slow but steady roll-out of its 4G network.
The company, which has pledged not to raise the price of its contracts for the extra speed, said it had “started small with a few thousand customers” already on 4G ready devices and had focused on Birmingham (inclusive of Dudley, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton), London, Reading and Manchester (including Oldham) as the first cities to benefit.
Three promised that more areas would get 4G in January 2014.