Hunt: Ofcom 'beset by threats of litigations'

Culture secretary calls on mobile operators to call off the lawyers and focus on the future of 4G to help government achieve broadband targets by 2015

Jeremy Hunt today claimed the UK government would achieve its goal of having the best broadband in Europe by 2015, but mobile would have to play a major part.

Speaking this morning at Google’s recently opened Tech City premises, the secretary of state for media, culture and sport claimed the government had added to its target with the promise of becoming the fastest broadband of any major European country – quicker than France or Germany at least – in the same time frame.

Hunt said extra funding of £300m had been secured from a settlement of the new BBC licence fee and would go towards rolling out even faster speeds, along with £150m dedicated to boosting download capabilities in major cities across the UK.

However, the minister admitted mobile data networks would have to be “harnessed” in order to reach the 90% of the population, as his government’s plans pledge.  

“We all recognise now we are going to need a mixture of mobile and fixed line in the future… and to put all our eggs into one basket or another would be a big mistake,” he said.

Hunt said the “crucial point” was the spectrum auction due in December of this year, which will see Ofcom divide the frequencies freed up by the digital switchover and share them out between mobile operators, giving them extra capacity to roll-out 4G services.  

However, delays to the process are feared as all the major operators involved in the process have threatened legal action if the rules of the auction don’t fit to their plans.

In addition, Everything Everywhere’s own 4G plans – where it wants to go ahead with 4G roll-out straight away as it already owns suitable spectrum – have caused uproar from rivals and could lead to further delays, with O2 and Vodafone both threatening to take the regulator to court if it allows the company to get an “unfair competitive advantage” by being the first to market with 4G products.

“We have been beset by threats of litigations from mobile operators,” said Hunt. “We are doing everything we can, and Ofcom are doing everything they can, to progress as fast as possible, but we do have people who have been quite litigious in the sector.

“You might be able to derive a temporary individual competitive advantage by taking out legal action, but you will be disadvantaging not just the whole industry but also your whole company much, much more by preventing the UK from rolling out those 4G networks.”

Once 4G connections are available in the UK, this will undoubtedly boost the ability to access the internet over a fast connection. However, with the data caps currently put in place by most mobile operators and the prospect of large bills if you go over them, Computer Weekly asked the secretary of state if he would speak with the network providers to ensure mobile data was a viable option for regular internet access.

“The low-cost availability of high-speed downloading is a primary objective in terms of the whole of this policy approach,” he said. “If you have high costs, you prevent the revolution happening and you make it the preserve of the few. If broadband was four times more expensive than it is now then we wouldn’t have a [It] needs broadband to be ubiquitous and it needs to be low price.”

However, Hunt wouldn’t go as far to say he would intervene.

“I don’t know the answer to this but my hunch is the reason for some of those limits on data is because of capacity constraints,” he added. “With these 4G auctions there will be additional capacity on the networks for data… but mobile data is tripling every year and that is at the heart of our focus.”

The minister concluded it would be a matter for Ofcom if the need to drive down mobile data prices and availability became an issue.

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