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Ofcom admits 4G auction will slip

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Struggling to cope with responses to its consultation, Ofcom will refine its 4G auction proposals for the end of 2011, and seek feedback with a view to commencing in Q4 2012.

The first proposals were published earlier this year, and generated huge amounts of feedback. Since then Ofcom has repeatedly claimed the process was on track, but slipped out a furtive release on Friday afternoon explaining that it was, in fact, going to do another round of consultation before trying to get the auctions going towards the end of next year.

The plan had been for the final auction details to be published this autumn, with the auction happening early next year, which was already getting tight. The delay comes as no surprise given the strength of feeling around the issues, and the regulator argues that the spectrum won't be available for commercial use until 2013 anyway (the final stages of digital switch-off aren't due until then).

But realistically that's bollocks as an early auction would have enabled companies to plan their network infrastructure, and start raising the money to pay for it too – things they now won't be able to start doing for another 12 months.

Not that the operators will complain; as long as no one else has 4G there's great incentive to push ahead quickly. They'll complain loudly in public that they desperately want 4G, but as the auction doesn't happen then no one (except UK Broadband, sort of) can proceed.

The UK is planning a very complicated auction, selling off the digital divided blocks at 800MHz alongside the 3G-expansion band at 2.6GHz. The process is also hampered by a historical imbalance between the incumbent operators, which some expect the auction rules to redress.

We'll have to wait until the end of the year to see what Ofcom plans now, with parties allowed another two months to respond and a final auction format published in the summer. The auction will then take place at the tail of 2012, with networks able to deploy come 2013.

Meanwhile the USA and Germany both have LTE networks already up and running, handset manufacturers are selling dongles and devices which can take advantage of download speeds topping 20Mb/sec, and the UK's much-heralded lead in mobile communications is slipping through our fingers. ®

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