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Lord Mandelson wants mobile internet fix

Operators called in to explain themselves

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Mandy has summoned heads of all the UK mobile operators in the hope of sorting out the 900MHz question, a roadblock on the way to Digital Britain which shows no signs of moving.

The news comes courtesy of the Guardian, which reports that Lord Mandelson has called the meeting on Tuesday. He is hoping to get the operators to agree on providing broadband to all, without suing the government or each other, and without any new taxes either.

The 50 pence-a-month levy to pay for better broadband in the countryside, as recommended in Lord Carter's Digital Britain report, isn't going to happen. Punters won't pay it, and the government isn't going to impose it directly before a general election. Meanwhile, the EU requires Britain to permit the use of 3G at 900MHz, which can't be done until the ownership of the spectrum is sorted out.

Two 900MHz bands were handed over to Vodafone and O2 way back when GSM first started, to encourage development of national networks, but these days the other operators feel entitled to a share. Those other operators also paid billions for 3G licences, at 2.1GHz, on the basis that 2.1GHz was the only frequency at which 3G would be permitted - allowing 3G at 900MHz devalues their assets and they want compensation, perhaps in the form of a chunk or two of spectrum at 900MHz.

So far Lord Carter has suggested handing over tiny slices of 900MHz, which prompted promises of a legal challenge from 3, who do particularly badly as they only own 2.1GHz spectrum at the moment. So the Independent Spectrum Broker suggested making Vodafone and O2 give up some 900MHz spectrum if they want to bid for any 800MHz - ex-analogue TV, now Digital Dividend - spectrum. But that would lead to an immensely complicated auction with companies having to guess what Vodafone and O2 were going to do.

What's worse is that the 900MHz GSM licences state that the owner will get a year's notice of any change. That can be circumvented, but only with the agreement of the licensee. So if Vodafone and O2 don't get exactly what they want, they can just sit on their licence until the next government comes into power. And seeing as the Conservative party has no published policy on radio spectrum at all, the incumbents have little to lose by doing exactly that. ®

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