EE, Three, BT, Vodafone, O2 All Win 4G Spectrum In The UK, But £2.3B In Bids Falls Short Of The £3.5B Expected

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Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, has just announced the winners of the UK spectrum auctions for 4G spectrum on the low-frequency 800MHz band, used for LTE and other mobile broadband services. The list is an attempt at playing fair: it includes fixed line incumbent BT; major mobile carriers Vodafone, Telefonica/O2, and EE; as well as smaller mobile upstart Three.

Meanwhile, two applicatants, MLL Telecom and HKT (UK) Company Limited (PCCW and Hong Kong Telecom in Hong Kong), were unsuccessful in their bids, Ofcom said.

In all, some £2.3 billion ($3.6 billion) was bid by the winning carriers, and the first services will come in 6 months. That means it fell short of the £3.5 billion that the UK government thought it might raise, and an even bigger drop down from the £22.5 billion raised by 3G auctions a decade ago.

“Despite all the noise being made about the UK’s 4G auction, what you can’t hear is the sound of champagne corks popping over at the Treasury as Ofcom’s 4G auction fails to raise George Osborne’s optimistic expectation of £3.5 billion coming in at £2.34 billion,” noted Matthew Howett, telecoms regulation analyst at Ovum. “For the mobile operators there must be widespread relief that the amount paid is a mere fraction of the £22.5bn they were asked to cough up during the 3G licencing process.”

Still, this is a major auction in terms of value (let’s say money saved by carriers, perhaps) as well as capacity, and potential services on that capacity. Ofcom says that it went through more than 50 rounds of bidding, and a total of 250 MHz of spectrum was auctioned in two separate bands in 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz — “equivalent to two-thirds of the radio frequencies currently used by wireless devices such as tablets, smartphones and laptops,” Ofcom says.

For a country that has one of the highest smartphone penetrations in the developed world (61% according to Kantar Worldpanel), the UK has been running behind others like the U.S. when it comes to rolling out superfast broadband services, specifically on LTE. Finally setting this auction date, after many delays, back in July 2012, and now completing the bidding, Ofcom believes it’s now getting off on the right foot to change that.

“This is a positive outcome for competition in the UK, which will lead to faster and more widespread mobile broadband, and substantial benefits for consumers and businesses across the country. We are confident that the UK will be among the most competitive markets in the world for 4G services,” said Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive, in a statement.

Still, you can also argue that consumer appetite in the UK for the services is still nascent — or at least waiting for more price competition in the area of LTE. EE, the combined efforts of T-Mobile and France Telecom/Orange in the UK, launched the first UK LTE network last year on unused spectrum in another band. Yesterday, the carrier revealed that it’s had 201,000 net-adds in the last quarter.

As a bit of background on the two spectrum areas: the lower-frequency 800 MHz band was part of the ‘digital dividend’ freed up when analogue terrestrial TV was switched off. It’s good for long-distance coverage over big areas, such as the UK’s rural expanses and smaller towns and villages. The higher-frequency 2.6 GHz band is better for short distances and fast speeds, ideal in urban environments. Ofcom says that in all the coverage should extend to 98% of the UK’s population, and 99% outdoors. By 2017 “at the latest,” coverage should also extend to 98% of each of the UK’s individual nations — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ofcom is careful not to be prescriptive when it comes to exactly what technology winning bidders will implement on their spectrum. While mobile carriers like EE, Three, Vodafone and O2 are likely to use it for LTE, BT — which backed out of being a mobile network owner when it spun off its Cellnet network as O2 (now owned by Spanish incumbent Telefonica) — may end up using it for other services like building out its existing WiFi network as well as wholesale services.

Ofcom had originally set aside a special tranche of spectrum for on bidder to provide mobile broadband service specifically for indoor reception, and the winner of that lot, it said, was Telefonica/O2.

Here is how the spectrum awards break down, according to Ofcom:

Ofcom 4g spectrum awards

Release below.

After more than 50 rounds of bidding, Everything Everywhere Ltd, Hutchison 3G UK Ltd, Niche Spectrum Ventures Ltd (a subsidiary of BT Group plc), Telefónica UK Ltd and Vodafone Ltd have all won spectrum. This is suitable for rolling out new superfast mobile broadband services to consumers and to small and large businesses across the UK1.

The auction has achieved Ofcom’s purpose of promoting strong competition in the 4G mobile market. This is expected to lead to faster mobile broadband speeds, lower prices, greater innovation, new investment and better coverage. Almost the whole UK population will be able to receive 4G mobile services by the end of 2017 at the latest.

A total of 250 MHz of spectrum was auctioned in two separate bands – 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz. This is equivalent to two-thirds of the radio frequencies currently used by wireless devices such as tablets, smartphones and laptops.

The lower-frequency 800 MHz band is part of the ‘digital dividend’ freed up when analogue terrestrial TV was switched off, and is ideal for widespread mobile coverage. The higher-frequency 2.6 GHz band is ideal for delivering the capacity needed for faster speeds. The availability of the two will allow 4G networks to achieve widespread coverage as well as offering capacity to cope with significant demand in urban centres.

Ed Richards, Ofcom Chief Executive, said: “This is a positive outcome for competition in the UK, which will lead to faster and more widespread mobile broadband, and substantial benefits for consumers and businesses across the country. We are confident that the UK will be among the most competitive markets in the world for 4G services.

“4G coverage will extend far beyond that of existing 3G services, covering 98% of the UK population indoors – and even more when outdoors – which is good news for parts of the country currently underserved by mobile broadband.

“We also want consumers to be well informed about 4G, so we will be conducting research at the end of this year to show who is deploying services, in which areas and at what speeds. This will help consumers and businesses to choose their most suitable provider.”

Widespread 4G coverage

Ofcom has attached a coverage obligation to one of the 800 MHz lots of spectrum. The winner of this lot is Telefónica UK Ltd. This operator is obliged to provide a mobile broadband service for indoor reception to at least 98% of the UK population (expected to cover at least 99% when outdoors) and at least 95% of the population of each of the UK nations – England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – by the end of 2017 at the latest.