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Rival mobile networks hang up on EE's 4G call

All we wanted was a monopoly

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Vodafone and Telefonica have laid out their arguments against EE's request to be allowed a monopoly on 4G telephony, and very damning they are too, but the public seems more supportive and Three's filing isn't public yet.

Not that there's any doubt about where Three stands, the company told us it had filed a response with Ofcom and looks forward to the regulator publishing it eventually, but EE will be heartened by the members of the public who stepped up to (mostly anonymously) back Ofcom's proposal to liberalise EE's 1800MHz spectrum and thus grant the UK's largest network operator a 4G monopoly.

"Everything Everywhere is not really one big company," as one, anonymous, respondent points out, "it is part owned between France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom ... which means it is actually like having 2 separate service providers", which neatly removes the monopoly problem in a way that even EE hasn't tried.

"My only concern is about the idea of EE using WiMAX," points out another member of the well-informed public who should probably know that neither EE nor anyone else will never deploy WiMAX in the UK again. The dying standard is only mentioned at all so Ofcom can preserve its façade of technical neutrality; no one is seriously talking about WiMAX any more.

Telefonica's response to the consultation is rather better informed, and disputes Ofcom's assertion that the regulator has to liberalise the EE's 1800MHz spectrum by the end of 2012, to conform to the EU's ruling permitting the merger of Orange and T-Mobile to create EE. Telefonica points out that the EU has no control over national regulation of radio spectrum, and that even if it did, it only asked that a process of liberalisation be started by December 2012, not that it be concluded by that date.

Telefonica also wants more details of Three's network-sharing deal with EE, which could easily extend into 4G, claiming that the details of the deal have an important bearing on the case.

Vodafone would like those details too, though the UK's number-two operator argues that EE would gain an unassailable lead if granted the monopoly. Ofcom puts that lead at 15 months, but Vodafone argues that EE's ability to immediately start building (knowing it has the spectrum), along with the availability of existing 1800MHz infrastructure, extend that lead considerably. Of course, that's assuming that the 4G auction (of bands at 800Mhz and 2.6GHz) goes ahead on schedule which is getting less likely every day.

EE's own submission runs over the familiar arguments: that the social benefits of 4G outweigh a little monopoly; that HSPA+ is almost as good as LTE so it's not important; and that it's the other network operators' fault for not championing 4G and EE shouldn't be blamed for their lack of foresight.

EE even got in touch with El Reg this afternoon, to make that last point in response to an earlier article referring to their desired monopoly.

The problem with the other-operators-were-too-lazy argument is that it's bollocks: EE holds almost half of the available radio spectrum in the UK, and suggestions that Vodafone and Telefonica could deploy LTE at 900MHz are fatally undermined by the way that spectrum is cut into 5MHz slices owned alternately by the two companies, making it impossible for either to create contiguous blocks of 10MHz or 20MHz that are suitable for LTE.

Vodafone and O2 want the 1800MHz liberalisation held off until after the 4G auctions, allowing all four operators to deploy at the same time (though Vodafone points out that will still give EE a lead as it can start building the network now while the rest will have to wait for the auction results).

We don’t know what Three is proposing, as its submission is still being censored by Ofcom, but we're told it is broadly against the idea and makes no bones about saying so.

It has been suggested that EE could be required to wholesale its 4G network to all comers at a price set by Ofcom. Strangely that's not an idea that any of the network operators seem to support, and it would be very complex to implement.

Ofcom will now have to come up with some sort of ruling, and brace itself for legal challenges to that decision. Meanwhile the UK continues slipping further backwards and the 4G auction looks further away every day. ®

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