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Ofcom sets out mega-auction timetable

No 4G until 2014

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Ofcom's chief executive has laid out the timetable for auctioning off the digital dividend spectrum, and it will be 2014 before it fills up with 4G radio.

The details were laid out during a speech at the FT World Telecoms Conference. Ofcom plans a consultation for February lasting until May, the auction details will then be announced at the end of next year, with the auction taking place the year afterwards (2012). That means awarding spectrum early 2013, with large-scale deployment not expected until 2014.

The bands in question are the analogue TV bands, and some spectrum around 2.6GHz which used to be known as "3G overflow" but these days is just known as 2.6GHz. The TV bands were never expected to be available until after 2012, but Ofcom has been trying to get shot of 2.6GHz for years – only to become embroiled in various delaying actions on the part of companies who didn't want to see a WiMAX start-up launching early.

Now that WiMAX is dead (it's not sleeping, don't be silly), and Ofcom has decided that the operators won't be allowed to deploy 4G (LTE) in their existing 3G (or 2G) bands, then the mega auction is the only way to get a national 4G network.

A similar restriction, leading to fear of being left out, drove the 3G prices to stratospheric levels, though it's hard to imagine operators falling for that a second time. What operators will do is fight for auction terms that fit their preconceived notion of what's fair.

Operators who didn't get 2G spectrum allocated to them (which would be 3UK) argue for advantageous access this time around, and say that incumbents should be forced to hand over some spectrum before bidding. That spectrum won't be so valuable, being restricted to 3G technologies, but is very unfairly distributed at the moment. Several of the operators will be looking to the mega auction terms and conditions for redress.

This is why the timetable set out by Ofcom is dependent on "there being no legal challenge to [2G refarming] or any of our subsequent decisions". So best not pre-order your 4G handset for delivery January 2014, not yet anyway. ®

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