UK mobile operator 3 will not be able to launch its own 4G services until September 2013, despite buying suitable spectrum from its rival Everything Everywhere (EE).
Ofcom announced on 21 August that it would allow Everything Everywhere to liberalise its 1800MHz spectrum band and use it for 4G services from September 2012, despite protests from rival providers claiming it would give EE an unfair competitive advantage.
Later that day, EE also revealed it had done a deal with 3 to sell 2x15MHz of its 1800MHz spectrum, born from the fact the company has been forced by the European Commission (EC) to offload some of its spectrum as part of its 2010 merger agreement to bring together T-Mobile and Orange under the Everything Everywhere banner.
EE admitted it could take up to three months for the deal to get the go-ahead from both the EC and Ofcom, but the fact another company would own spectrum capable of delivering a 4G network took some of the negative attention away from the operator and led the industry to believe there would be another competitor on the horizon.
However, a source close to the situation has told Computer Weekly there is very little chance 3 will be able to launch 4G services for at least a year, as EE didn’t have to clear the spectrum for 3's use until September 2013.
“The original merger requirement to divest space doesn’t require EE to free up the spectrum until the end of September next year,” he said, adding that it was entirely contingent on EE and the operator was not likely to free up the spectrum when it was not obliged to.
When Computer Weekly asked EE how soon 3 would be able to use the spectrum, the firm admitted a similar timeframe.
“Most of the spectrum will be cleared for use by the end of September 2013, with the remainder cleared by the end of September 2015,” said the spokeswoman.
With the spectrum auction for other providers to get their hands on suitable 4G frequencies not set to go ahead until December 2012, and 3’s spectrum remaining blocked, Everything Everywhere will still be the only player in the market with 4G connections for up to a year.
There is little chance 3 will be able to launch 4G services for at least a year
We asked Ofcom whether it would step in and force EE to clear the spectrum, but a spokesman said it was not necessary.
“The stipulation that it needs to be cleared in September was imposed by the EC and we wouldn’t enforce anything different,” he said. “Our review concluded there won’t be any long-term distortion to the market by liberalising EE spectrum.
“We have said further down the line we would consider remedies… if it did have any effect, but we will keep it under review.”