Last night it was revealed that "peace talks" brokered
by Maria Miller, the new Culture Secretary, and Ofcom have led to
agreement between UK mobile operators that will allow the 4G
auction process to continue unimpeded, notwithstanding Ofcom's
controversial decision in August to allow Everything Everywhere
("EE") to use their existing 1800 MHz spectrum to launch
4G services this year (ahead of the formal auction process).
Following that August announcement, there have been rumours of
Vodafone and O2 considering whether to formally challenge the Ofcom
decision, which has supposedly in turn led to EE putting the brakes
on announcing a formal service launch. The other UK mobile network
operator, Three, has reportedly concluded a deal to purchase
additional 1800 MHz spectrum from EE (fulfilling a condition
required at the time of the merger between Orange and T-Mobile to
form EE), although again it was not expected that they would have
been able to commence use of this spectrum until EE had exited the
relevant spectrum bands themselves, sometime late in 2013.
Yesterday's announcement is clearly good news for the
industry in general, as despite the mobile networks stated
collective goal of looking to launch 4G networks and services as
soon as possible, threats of legal action by each of them have been
perceived as a major factor in delaying the formal UK 4G auction
process. Under latest plans published over the Summer, the auction
process in scheduled to kick-off in January 2013 (up to a year
later than first envisaged).
However, while not under-estimating the importance of bringing
the mobile networks to some sort of agreement, the real reason
behind the acceleration in the timetable seems to have been the
work done "behind the scenes" in ensuring that frequency
in the 800 MHz band is made available for use by the mobile
networks by May or June 2013, six months ahead of the previous
target date of the end of 2013.
This has been enabled by the great progress that has been made
by Arqiva in rolling out digital terrestrial television
("DTT") across the UK, as part of the "great
switch-over" from traditional analogue TV (which uses the 800
MHz spectrum that is being freed up for 4G use). Getting the whole
of the UK to swap over to DTT was always going to be a major
logistic operation, and it is great to see that the process has
gone so well that it is able to be completed ahead of schedule - a
relative rarity in large-scale technology projects which are often
subject to delays.
Of course, with the stakes set as high as they are here
– with each of the four UK mobile operators having to
secure 4G spectrum in the 4G auctions in order to ensure their
survival into the future – there is still no complete
guarantee that pledges made yesterday by the mobile networks are
merely a "ceasefire" rather than a formal end to
It is still however great news that we could be looking at 4G
services launching across all mobile networks before next summer,
provided the lawyers stay out of things.
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