4G – What’s the hold up?

As Everything Everywhere launches a campaign for faster rollout of 4G networks, we ask what is slowing the UK’s adoption of the mobile technology.

The mobile phone has become a staple of business life and, with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, workers now expect to stay connected when on the move via voice, text and the internet.

But, with both corporate users and consumers pushing more data across mobile connections than ever, the networks built for the days of lower usage are beginning to buckle under the pressure.

Although most would scoff at a 2G network, this is still a common connection for mobile users across the UK, and those lucky enough to have decent 3G reception still find the networks too busy to provide good performance.

Enter 4G or Long Term Evolution (LTE). This next generation of mobile network promises much speedier performance – reportedly upward of 100Mbps download speeds – and will involve the freeing up of more spectrum for mobile connections, lifting the burden from older networks and improving the experience for all.

But, despite the desperate need for 4G in the UK, we are miles behind other countries in rolling out the technology. Take the launch of the latest iPad from Apple. The mobile giants thought it necessary to include 4G support into the tablet, which users across the US, Norway, South Korea and the other 31 countries with the technology, could take full advantage of.

In the UK, however, Apple fans could queue up and get the new iPad, but not use it to its full potential, thanks to a lack of 4G network on our shores.

A select few trials have begun in Britain, with major network operators testing out their 4G capabilities. But trials only provide a handful of users with the new speeds and the process of moving from 3G to next-generation networks is taking a lot longer than it has elsewhere across the globe.

Everything Everywhere – the partnership between Orange and T-Mobile – has decided to champion a quicker roll-out of 4G technology, starting a campaign named 4GBritain. It has received support from campaign groups, such as The Countryside Alliance, along with industry names like Virgin Media.

Research conducted on the company’s behalf claimed the full investment needed from mobile operators to bring UK networks up to scratch would be £5.5bn. However, the report, Mobile Broadband and the UK Economy, also said this money would bring an extra 125,000 jobs to the UK and add 0.5% to national GDP – equivalent to £75bn over 10 years.

With figures from the research suggesting over two-thirds of the 95 billion minutes of calls made by businesses across the UK are over mobile phones, it seems corporate users will need the investment more than anyone.

“Seen commonly as a mere ‘yuppie’ fashion statement in the 1980s, the mobile telephone has become a vital part of everyday life for over 46 million adults in the UK and an essential tool for business,” read the report.

“Moreover, almost one quarter of employees who use the internet for their work are now being provided with 3G mobile devices for internet access and data connectivity. A £5.5bn programme will register as a meaningful boost to business investment nationally and will come at a time when the economy is operating well below full capacity and there is a dearth of private sector investment.”

Everything Everywhere might be making noise about wanting to ramp up the roll-out, but some have suggested the operator is to blame for the lengthy delays.

To get an operational 4G network in the UK, spectrum needs to be made available for the connections to run over. Ofcom has been put in charge of sharing out the spectrum and took a rather long time to announce an auction for the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands – made available from the digital TV switchover – which is now set for the end of 2012.

However, Everything Everywhere then asked Ofcom if it could use its existing 2G spectrum to start offering 4G services sooner, followed by a statement from the regulator saying it didn’t see an issue with granting the request.

This led to uproar from the company’s rival operators, which think allowing the second usage for the spectrum will give Everything Everywhere an unfair advantage to win over customers looking for faster speeds, before they have a chance to implement their own 4G networks.

It is now being suggested the likes of Vodafone, O2 and 3 might actually take Ofcom to court to dispute the decision, meaning the auction could be put back even further.

A spokesman from Ofcom told Computer Weekly such issues were causing more delays to the roll-out and users should come before stakeholders when making these decisions.

“It is our objective to see consumers benefit from 4G services as soon as possible,” he said. “We also want consumers to continue to enjoy the benefits of strong competition into the future.

“Delays have been caused by legal challenges and threats of future litigation from various companies as they seek to defend their own commercial positions. While we recognise the need for companies to protect the interests of their shareholders, our role is to promote the interests of consumers.”

Companies can try and get their way with Ofcom and rival firms can go through the courts, but whatever drama surrounds it, firms, regulators and users need to understand building up a strong, reliable 4G network needs time, planning and, most of all, a large investment to get it off the ground.

Rob Bamforth, principal analyst at Quocirca, said it is a much tougher process than the move from 2G to 3G.

“Unlike the 3G rollout, [where operators were] all at the starting blocks together and the public initially didn't seem to care, 4G is much more high profile, as can be seen from some of those involved in the campaign,” he said.

“Everyone wants high-speed mobile access everywhere and for as little as possible. The problem is this requires investment, roll-out effort and careful assessment by Ofcom to ensure it's been achieved. It won't happen overnight and in the haste to 'avoid delays' there could be problems.”

Bamforth believes it is better to take time over the roll-out, even if it means falling behind other countries, as it is better to do things right than do things quickly.

“The UK doesn't need a fast rollout to a few select places just to satisfy vendor agendas or the needs of celebrities,” he said. “It has to deliver the widest possible coverage and this needs obligations placed on operators, who might otherwise simply go for the low-hanging fruit of highest return – for example Ofcom had to push O2 to meet its coverage obligations with 3G.

“High-speed mobile broadband soonest is necessary but without ubiquity it is not sufficient. With 4G 'ready, fire, aim' is the last thing the UK needs.”

Needless to say, the soap opera being played out between the operators and the regulators will continue to be played out for some months, but what business users want is the network, not more squabbles.

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