The UK is already behind 38 other countries with a commercial LTE roll out and 4G, with benefits including improved network coverage, may not arrive here until 2014. The government blames the telecos and the telecos and TV operators blame Ofcom. So who’s really to blame and what’s the solution?
Communications minister Ed Vaizey, speaking at the Future Entertainment Summit in London earlier this month, said that the 4G spectrum will not be cleared until the end of 2013 and the delay is due to the telecom companies being ready to pounce on Ofcom if the Office of Communication puts a step wrong.
He claimed that Ofcom has to undergo an exhaustive consultation process, because every single mobile phone company has threatened to sue them if they don’t get it right.
Telecoms Everything Everywhere and Vodafone deny they have threatened Ofcom with litigation. Everything Everywhere insists that their wish is to invest in innovation to bring 4G to the UK as soon as possible, ideally by the end of 2012, initially on a small scale, using the existing 1800MHz spectrum.
Vodafone has also recently announced plans with O2, to share a network that would give them a total of 18,500 masts, which they say will extend current 2G and 3G coverage. It will also enable the masts to support 4G technology in readiness for the Coalition Government’s approval of 4G licences.
A Vodafone spokesman said:
‘We would like to see a fair and open auction of the spectrum needed to run these services carried out as soon as possible".
However, O2, while supporting Ofcom’s proposal for a spectrum auction which prevents strategic bidding, and spectrum caps, which will safeguard consumer interest, is claiming that the proposed spectrum floors are a state aid and are therefore illegal under EU law.
The spectrum floors, they say, would distort the auction process, allowing all bidders, except Vodafone and O2, to potentially acquire spectrum at discounted prices.
The arguments have been going on for a while now. The courtroom battles began back in 2008, when Ofcom's attempt to make available some of the spectrum for 4G was stymied by a legal challenge - by T-Mobile, now, along with Orange, part of Everything Everywhere.
Another area of concern is Ofcom’s purported backing of Everything Everwhere's proposal for an early push into 4G, which particularly, appears to have riled both Vodafone and O2, whose partnership has also given rise to complaint.
O2 and Vodafone claim they will continue to compete for customers and for spectrum in the auction. However, the partnership means the UK market has gone from five independent mobile firms three years ago to Everything Everywhere, O2 and Vodafone, and Three. The plans are subject to Ofcom's approval.
Shielding digital TV from mobile spectrum interference is the other major area for concern. Up to 2.3m UK homes could suffer TV interference from 4G mobile signals.
This includes an estimated 900,000 using Freeview. Signals could be affected because the 800MHz spectrum to enable 4G sits alongside the 700MHz spectrum used for Freeview. Homes within a 2km radius of a 4G mast are thought most likely to suffer signal disruption and will need to fit a filter.
The government has sought to address the problem by setting up a £180m scheme for providing solutions to the interference, including free support to be offered to over-75s and people who are registered disabled.
The scheme is to be funded by the winning mobile operators in the 4G spectrum auction, to be held by Ofcom later this year.
But networks, such as Freeview, are concerned that the scheme doesn’t go far enough and believe that the government should instead use some of the £2-3bn windfall, expected to result from the 4G auction, to address problems. They warn that £180m will be "inadequate" to address the problems. Indeed, with this sale involving 80% more spectrum than the 3G auction in 2000, up to £40 billion may end up in the Treasury's coffers
The operators claim that the huge sums they paid in 2000 for 3G spectrum had a disastrous effect on their subsequent investment in networks. It can't be denied that the promise of the mobile internet, touted during the 3G auction, did not arrive until around seven years later.
Operators are particularly concerned over the lack of clear guidance on measures to address problems on secondary TV sets and potential complications deriving from multi-domicile buildings, such as flat blocks. They also contend that a pilot scheme should be set up to gauge potential impact and a public awareness scheme launched assuring viewers that they will continue to receive the services they get now without having to put their hands in their pockets.
Shadow Minister for Media, Helen Goodman, believes Ofcom must act to provide much needed calrity:
"At the moment it is unclear whether the government will compensate people affected or expect the industry to do so," she argued.
She added that it was also not clear whether people will have enough time and support to mitigate the potential effect of interference before 4G services commence.
She asked Ofcom to indicate when it plans to make recommendations, and also to inform the public of its strategy to resolve the issue prior to the launch of super-fast mobile broadband.
In one of the most competative mobile markets in the world, it’s natural that every operator will seek to defend its corner in the coming 4G disruption. However, the jostling for power, lies and accusations are risking Britain being left behind in the race for 4G.
Everything Everywhere has launched a campaign to heighten awareness of the benefits of 4G to the UK economy. But with the 4G auction delayed until the end of this year and the spectrum unavailable until next year anyway, there is no real prospect of accelerating the timetable.
The campaign has caused suspicion among Everything Everywhere’s rivals They point to the fact that the company is currently awaiting a ruling from Ofcom on whether it can use existing spectrum to bring in a limited 4G service early. There's been talk of legal action if approval is granted. In this context, to further the case for early adoption, a public campaign would appear to make sense.
But if one company is favoured over others, it may be a little optimistic to expect peace to break out any time soon. Ofcom needs to make the correct decisions. However, a campaign is no bad thing - public awareness of what’s going on could be just the thing to shame the warring factions into some form of a truce.