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Europe crams ultra-fast 4G into tight spectrum crack

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Euro telecoms regulator CEPT has released 120MHz of shiny new radio spectrum for "ultra-fast mobile broadband", which would be more impressive if the bands weren't full of reasonably fast data already.

The frequencies concerned are around 2.1GHz and are already full of 3G networking everywhere - but a handful of operators are considering deploying faster 4G in those bands and can now do so with the official backing of Europe even if they'll have to wait for permission from national regulators too.

This is important to the UK as it relates to Everything Everywhere's rush to deploy 4G (LTE) before everyone else in the country at 1800MHz, a move that rivals say will create a monopoly.

This frequency is far below the new gap opened up by CEPT at 2.1GHz - but Everything Everywhere argues that if the UK authorities grant it permission to deploy 4G in 1800MHz, a legal monopoly will be avoided because its rivals now have another possible slot to deploy 4G if they wanted to - if they're willing to drop their 3G customers. An alternative slot would involve them shoving aside 2G punters.

The bands concerned are allocated to frequency division duplex (FDD), which uses separate radio frequencies for sending and receiving to ensure a symmetrical connection. The industry is still obsessed with FDD having failed to notice that most of us download more than upload these days, but that's a subject for another day.

In the UK the 2.1GHz ownership starts with Three, which owns the first 15MHz of each band, Telefonica (aka O2) owns the next 10MHz and Vodafone another 15MHz chunk. The rest belongs to Everything Everywhere: 10MHz was inherited from each of Orange and T-Mobile following their merger, making a pattern 60MHz wide which is repeated at 1.92GHz and 2.11GHz with the lower band being used for uplink (to the base station) and the upper for transmissions to the handset.

3G spectrum ownership in the UK

This pattern is repeated again at 1.92GHz

3G (UMTS) mandates 5MHz-wide channels, each of which carries multiple phones identified by a transmitted code (Code Division Multiple Access). 4G (LTE) also uses CDMS but can scale its channel width, though to achieve headline speeds it needs to spread out to its maximum 20MHz.

The only UK operator, therefore, capable of achieving proper LTE speeds in these bands is Everything Everywhere, the same operator that owns contiguous blocks of 60MHz at 1800MHz which is where it wants to deploy 4G this year, Ofcom's green light permitting.

Everything Everywhere argues that the other operators could trade spectrum to create contiguous blocks, at 2.1GHz or 900MHz where the pattern is even more prescriptive, but that's unlikely when spectrum remains such a scarce resource (and Everything Everywhere owns almost half of it in the UK).

Elsewhere in Europe the pattern is different, and operators may well decide to deploy 4G in this band (which is generally known as 2.1GHz as that's where the downlink lies) if only so they can boast support for the new iPad's brand of 4G connectivity. ®

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