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Think 2014 if you're waiting for 4G in the UK

Ofcom juggles warring operators

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Comment The UK is trialling 4G technology, while the rest of the world is deploying it, because our regulator hasn't the resources to mediate between operators bleating about the injustice of it all.

Like warring siblings the UK's network operators constantly cry foul, demanding the regulator redress historical grievances and perceived inequalities like a child besieging an overworked parent. But that parent is already failing to meet its commitments, and another round of consultations isn't going to undo the Gordian Knot of spectrum ownership any quicker.

Ofcom has less money than last year. It is running on about 80 per cent budget, despite taking on much more responsibility. As well as trying to pilot the mega-auction between increasingly belligerent operators, the regulator is reviewing TV advertising, working out how to use White Space, reporting on copyright infringements and national resilience, and allocating spectrum for the Olympic games – all in addition to what it did the previous year.

Then there's the stuff still hanging on from last year. The national database of radio users, which would enable anyone to identify the owner/use of any radio mast, was supposed to go live in February. After inquiring about that, we were told it would be "in the summer", then, more than a month ago, "in a couple of weeks". And still we wait.

Meanwhile the regulator has apparently spent more than 15 months investigating a complaint of dodgy news reporting, and still can't decide on an appropriate punishment for the guilty party.

But it’s the delay of the mega-auction, selling off bands at 800MHz and 2.6GHz, which is most concerning as it is delaying the UK's deployment of 4G (LTE) technology – all while the US, Germany and elsewhere move happily along. The UK's operators like to blame the regulator, but are intransigent to the point of pugilism in insisting that previous (perceived) favouritism be redressed.

That favouritism relates to the allocations of the 900MHz bands, which were awarded to Vodafone and Telefonica (BT Cellnet, as was) for a cheap annual rent, and are now being filled with 3G signals thanks to refarming. T-Mobile and Orange got less-valuable allocations at 1.8GHz, which they could fill with 3G if there were any handsets available. Three got no allocations, so is most voluble in its ranting.

Three reckons it should get priority access to new spectrum, while O2 and Vodafone complain that T-Mobile and Orange (now combined into Everything Everywhere) has too much spectrum and should be restricted in its bidding. EE says it is damned if it is going to sit around watching everyone else buying up spectrum, while BT stands on the sidelines shouting that any coverage obligation attached to the auction would amount to an illegal state subsidy.

Our coverage of that last allegation prompted an interesting response from the Consumer Communications Panel (and an Ofcom email address) explaining that it wasn't up to BT to decide what was legal or illegal, that (apparently) was Ofcom's job – which is odd as we thought Parliament hadn't handed over such power just yet.

We received an even stronger rebuttal when we suggested that there was no workable solution, that no matter what Ofcom proposed it would prompt at least one network operator to see the regulator in court (thus further delaying the auction).

That was apparently pure speculation on our part, though we'd stand by the conclusions even as Ofcom hopes to placate everyone with another round of proposals and discussions. The regulator claims the delay won't prevent operators building 4G networks in 2013, but it obviously will when the most optimistic date for the auctions is right at the end of 2012. We'd venture a guess that legal challenges will push the UK auction well into 2013, and that we won't get an LTE signal until 2014 at best.

Unless we're visiting the US, Germany, France, Sweden, Norway or Canada... ®

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