U.K. 4G Rollout Takes Another Step Closer As Carriers Join Forces To Speed 800MHz Spectrum Clearance

The rollout of multiple 4G/LTE networks in the U.K. took another step closer today with a joint statement from carriers EE, Telefónica O2, Three and Vodafone saying they formed a jointly controlled company to ensure spectrum deployed in the 800MHz band — currently used by TV broadcasters — can be cleared as speedily as possible, while also tackling any TV signal interference issues that arise as LTE starts to rollout next spring.

The company will be called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMS). In today’s joint statement, Ofcom, the U.K. government and the four carriers announced the formation of DMS — and the appointment of an interim chairman, Andrew Pinder. This organisation was originally going to be known as MitCo — and MitCo was one of the bones of contention among the carriers in regards to the 4G spectrum auction process. The original timetable had meant MitCo would not have been set up until after the spectrum auction had taken place — thereby delaying any 4G rollout in the 800MHz band until later in the year. In today’s statement, all parties note that creating DMS now will “further accelerate the rollout of competitive 4G services next year”.

Not so long ago the U.K.’s carriers were trading insults with telecoms regulator Ofcom and each other as they jockeyed for position ahead of the 4G spectrum auction. Delay was the order of the day for many years — as the leap from 3G to 4G meant disrupting established (and lucrative) business models. Better the lucrative 3G devil you know, you could say. All that changed when the Everything Everywhere joint venture (now known as EE) between Orange and T-Mobile got given the go-ahead by Ofcom to refarm existing 2G spectrum in the 1,800MHz band for 4G services — meaning it could launch a 4G network this year.

Ofcom’s decision to give EE a head-start effectively gave all players an incentive to speed up the spectrum auction timetable — as the alternative would have meant more delays if legal action was used to block EE’s early launch. (Of course the government has its own incentive to get the 4G ball rolling in the form of the large sums of money that will be raised via the spectrum auctions.)

Last month all the involved parties spent a month locked in crunch talk negotiations. The result of these talks was Ofcom announcing significant progress had been made to speed up the rollout timetable — by as much as five months. Today, the creation of DMS indicates that this new collaborative modus operandi is continuing to win the day.

Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards noted in a statement today: “This is further evidence of the progress that is being made by the industry, guided by Ofcom, to deliver 4G mobile services across the UK. The 4G auction is already on track to begin at the end of the year and the creation of Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited ahead of time represents yet another step towards bringing consumers early access to the next generation of mobile broadband services.”

Pinder added in a second statement: “This is an excellent response by all mobile operators to the [U.K. government] Minister’s challenge to set up this company as quickly as possible. It represents a real milestone and I will continue to work with all of the mobile operators and other stakeholders to get plans in place for the rapid launch of 4G services on the spectrum to be auctioned next year.”

DMS will be funded by the successful bidders for 800MHz spectrum in the forthcoming auction. The statement notes that provisions have been made to ensure that if any other party acquires some of this spectrum in the auction they can immediately become a shareholder in the company.