Ofcom must resolve uncertainty around the reallocation of mobile radio frequencies if the government is to realise its dream of a Digital Britain.
Much has been made of the government's cornerstone desire, promised last week by Treasury and communications minister Stephen Timms, but disputed by Whitehall, for guaranteed universal access to a minimum 2Mbps broadband connection by 2012. The Department for Business Innovation and Skills says it will be "up to 2Mbps".
The reallocation of radio frequencies is essential if they are to achieve this. This is because it will cost too much to roll out fixed cables to every home, office and farm; some links will have to be wireless.
Carlos Leira, head of technology at mobile network operator Orange, says, "For mobile network operators [MNOs], spectrum is oxygen."
Ofcom is presently consulting on proposals to reallocate spectrum in the 800Mhz, 900Mhz and 2.6Ghz bands, If Ofcom gets it right, the UK could lead the world in mobile broadband, says Kevin Russell, 3UK's CEO.
But there is a long way to go even after the spectrum is reparcelled. Except for 3UK, the mobile networks mix 2G and 3G voice-optimised technologies.
Russell says 3UK deliberately went after the mass market with applications such as Skype, YouTube and Facebook with dongles, mid-range internet-capable phones and a Skypephone. Data now makes up 94% of traffic on 3UK's network, which it shares with T-Mobile, currently the object of a takeover by Orange.
The introduction of smartphones and the subsequent increase in data traffic are driving a complete re-engineering of Orange's mobile network infrastructure, says Tim Smith, head of Orange networks. Re-working the network from a voice-friendly circuit switched network to a data-friendly packet switched network is the only way to optimise the experience of using smartphones, he says.
That brings in the issue of coverage. Russell says that by next year 3UK will have 13,000 basestations providing 14.4kbps broadband connections to 98% of the population. Andy Sutton, Orange's principal design consultant and network architect, says Orange is well advanced in testing 3G, or High Speed Digital Packet Access (HSDPA), at up to 6Mbps.
But this is limited to Orange's (and other MNOs) 2G and 3G coverage footprints. So there are at least two generations of digital radio technology to amortise before UK MNOs can afford to think of introducing Long Term Evolution (LTE), which is theoretically capable of 100Mbps. And they will need the right frequencies in the right places to make it viable.
Smith says permitted write-off periods (which can be decades in the telecoms industry) don't help him to introduce new, faster, greener technology quicker. Nor does the uncertainty over business rates on communications infrastructure. David Harrington of the Communications Management Association says a rates valuation can shift the profitability of a network investment by several million pounds.
What MNOs need is more certainty about regulations and taxation. Their margins are already under pressure, so continued uncertainty risks letting their attention wander elsewhere.