UK 4G Crunch Talks Between Carriers, Regulators Win Speedier Launch Of LTE Networks

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The U.K.’s telecoms regulator Ofcom has announced “significant progress” has been made to speed up the delivery of high speed LTE mobile network. The timetable has been accelerated by as much as five months — enabling the launch of commercial 4G services across the country during the first half of next year. This has been made possible after an agreement was secured to speed up the process of clearing the spectrum (currently used by TV broadcasters).

Prior to this agreement, carriers intending to launch LTE networks in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum bands — due to be auctioned early next year — would have had to wait until autumn 2013 before being able to launch their 4G services. Both O2 and Vodafone intend to bid for spectrum in these bands to launch LTE networks — so they will now have a much shorter wait before being able to offer 4G services.

Ofcom’s statement notes

Following discussions with TV broadcasters, Digital UK and the transmission company Arqiva, Ofcom has secured the earlier release of frequencies that were previously used for digital-terrestrial broadcasting.

This spectrum will now be cleared and ready for 4G mobile services across much of the UK five months earlier than previously planned, from spring 2013. This has only become possible in the past few months as a result of the significant progress that has been made to date with the digital switchover and the clearance programme itself, which has been running ahead of schedule.

This means that more UK consumers will be able to benefit from a competitive market for super-fast mobile broadband sooner than previously possible.

The regulator gives two examples of how freeing up particular TV transmissions will enable LTE services to be launched more quickly — noting that the clearance date for TV transmitters in Oxford and Waltham will be brought forward by five months to May 2013, freeing up the spectrum for deployment of 4G mobile services to around nine million people in cities including London, Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield; while the clearance date for TV transmitters in and around Glasgow and Edinburgh (a coverage area of around 1 million people) will be brought forward by more than three months to April 2013.

Ofcom adds that it put steps in place over the past year to help accelerate the spectrum clearance program. However there is a more obvious catalyst for speeding up proceedings: the announcement last month by EE (formerly Everything Everywhere — the parent company of Orange and T-Mobile) that it planned to launch the U.K.’s first LTE network this year, by utilising its existing spectrum holdings in the 1,800MHz band (something that was only possible after Ofcom gave it the green light to refarm 2G spectrum for 4G services).

That decision was publicly denounced by the U.K.’s other mobile network operators on the grounds that it gave EE an unfair advantage.

The U.K.’s four mobile network operators spent last month locked in talks with each other, Ofcom and government ministers to try to thrash out a deal to avoid the risk of litigation holding back EE’s LTE launch, and to ensure multiple 4G networks could launch as speedily as possible. All the carriers signed a ‘stand still agreement’ covering the month of September to allow time for negotiations to take place. This agreement meant EE could not launch its 4G network last month but also prevented the other carriers from litigating to block EE’s 4G launch in that period.

The upshot of all this is that it looks like the U.K. will be spoil for 4G choice a lot sooner than most industry watchers had feared.

“The early clearance of the 800MHz, which has traditionally been used for analogue TV has appeased operators who were particularly concerned that EE would have been given a significant head-start. After more than five years in the making, finally the schedule to award spectrum for 4G appears to have been agreed,” commented Matthew Howett, analyst at Ovum, in a statement. “Consumers will only see the true benefits of 4G when there is competition between operators. Whilst it would’ve been ideal to have seen that from day one, at least, it’s now set to arrive in months rather than years.”

In many ways, Ofcom played an ace by allowing EE to launch 4G ahead of everyone else as it meant that for others to follow they needed the joint award of 800MHz and 2.6GHz to happen as soon as possible – something which now seems finally likely to take place. In a matter of weeks, the UK has gone from being behind countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to one with one of the most ambitious 4G roll out strategies we have seen,” he added.