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Thank Freeview for UK 4G by mid-2013 - NOT the iPhone 5 nor EE

Telly retuning clears way for networks to join party early

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Ofcom will clear radio frequencies allowing UK network operators to launch 4G mobile broadband months ahead of schedule - even though it hasn't moved the 4G licence auction.

EE's monopoly on 4G coverage should end by June next year as a result of this, instead of the end of 2013 as first anticipated. This is thanks to phone-mast engineers at Arqiva rejigging the Freeview retuning schedule to provide January's 4G auction winners early access to their frequencies.

However, Blighty's communications watchdog is being unduly credited with negotiating a solution between EE and its rival network operators, and the breakthrough is painted as a government victory: we're told the Secretary for Fun Maria Miller pressured Ofcom and the operators into negotiating an agreement, motivated by the 4G monopoly given to EE. However, such a scenario falls down at the first hint of examination.

The announcement is no surprise - we reported it yesterday morning despite the participants apparently being locked in tense negotiations all day. But it's also worth looking at why Arqiva is able to change the timetable for clearing the 800MHz band, and how much pressure was needed to make that happen.

In fact the switch to digital television, which will leave that band empty, has gone remarkably well in the UK, unexpectedly well. Freeview has proved an enormous success, and manufacturers have created fantastically cheap boxes to convert the most elderly of TVs to digital, while the public has easily grasped the idea that such boxes are necessary.

The government has spent a good deal of cash educating people, and (strange as it sounds) that money has worked. In fact it's worked so well that there's dosh left over and some debate over what it should be spent on.

It's that smooth transition that has given Arqiva - which runs most of the UK's TV transmitter systems - the confidence to switch frequencies earlier than expected, a confidence which has nothing to do with the 4G monopoly given to EE nor the launch of Apple's iPhone 5.

The timetable to auction off licences for 4G mobile communications is immovable: it's not going to happen in 2012 no matter what because too many processes have been put into motion to let that happen. Network operators are still recruiting auction teams, negotiating with banks to raise funds, poring over network maps to decide which blocks best fit their existing infrastructure, and they need until January to do all that - so moving the auction forward would bring chaos.

The early release of the 4G bands at 800MHz is to be welcomed, but the idea that it was motivated by EE's monopoly or Apple's new iThingy is balderdash. The UK monopoly on 4G has motivated O2, Vodafone and Three to threaten legal action against Ofcom, and to rail against the unfairness of it all, but it’s the UK's interest in digital television that has made the early release possible. ®

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