Lawsuits delayed auction of 4G spectrum for mobile broadband planned for 2008
Legal bickering has delayed the launch of 4G mobile broadband in the UK by more than four years.
Plans were originally made to start an auction of radio spectrum suitable for 4G services in July 2008, but both O2 and T-Mobile legally challenged the proposals and the auction never took place.
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An Ofcom spokesman said: "It has been difficult to bring 4G to consumers in the face of so many legal challenges. The delay has been to the severe detriment of consumers."
4G is an umbrella term for a range of standards and radio frequencies used to deliver much faster wireless broadband.
An auction of 4G-suitable radio frequencies still hasn't happened. Had the 2008 auction gone ahead it was hoped that at least some parts of the country would have had access to 4G as early as 2009.
The 2008 auction was for 2.6GHz spectrum. Industry experts explained that this frequency provides sufficient bandwidth but little range. That means cities could have been covered using 2.6GHz 4G, but not rural areas.
O2 said that the proposed 4G auction in 2008 was challenged because it didn't allow them to make "investment decisions."
"It is true to say that there was a challenge to the proposed auction of 2600MHz on its own. As 2600MHz in isolation would not achieve national 4G, the auction proposal was deemed inefficient," the company said.
Andrew Ferguson, co-founder of broadband advice service Think Broadband, explained that disagreements between Ofcom and providers would have significantly delayed the launch of 4G in the UK:
"Everyone seems to be blaming each other. I think it boils down to Ofcom's soft-touch approach over the years. Objections from mobile networks about 4G can add six months to the process – so you only need a few to delay things."
"Now the industry needs to wake up, stop bickering and start delivering."
Everything Everywhere, the parent company of T-Mobile and Orange, was granted permission by Ofcom to use existing spectrum to launch a 4G network in October.
Following the merger of T-Mobile and Orange the company owned a large chunk of 1800MHz frequency and was able to use this for a new 4G network. The new network, now known as EE, is the only one compatible with the 4G capabilities of the Apple iPhone 5.
O2 said that Ofcom had handed EE a huge competitive advantage that would give it a reason to try to delay future 4G spectrum auctions.
"Ofcom's decision will create a monopoly for over 12 months as well as handing EE an incentive to delay the auction and/or deployment of spectrum in order to extend the length of its monopoly," O2 said.
Ofcom said its decision was good news for consumers but stated that it didn't concern itself with what individual manufacturers were doing.
An Ofcom spokesperson said: "Had we not allowed EE to start a 4G network then no consumers in the UK would benefit from the iPhone 5's 4G capabilities."
Matthew Howett, a telecoms expert at analyst firm Ovum said that all parties needed to accept blame for the delays.
"Ofcom was being quite a maverick and wanted to be first in Europe to auction 4G, but mobile phone operators were concerned about how the auction was structured. The issue eventually made it to Government, but the ball was dropped during the last general election.
"Finally, in recent years the fault is with the operators. Operators have realised that if they keep fighting they can delay having to invest in 4G. Suddenly there was a massive incentive for one operator to break away. That's what Everything Everywhere did and its gamble has paid off."
An auction for 4G spectrum is set to take place before the end of the year, which will allow O2, Vodafone and other networks to bid. Consumers should start seeing 4G networks from operators other than EE by mid-2013.
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