4G - coming at last

A smartphone

Finally, 4G is coming to the UK - but don't get too excited just yet. In the plans laid out by Ofcom this morning for the much-delayed auction of 4G spectrum, the regulator envisages that consumers will start getting access to the new superfast mobile services in late 2013. Meanwhile, in countries like the United States and Germany, 4G is already becoming commonplace.

When I read the press release this morning, my first reaction was that there had been yet another delay. Having said in October 2011 that the auction would be delayed - "perhaps starting in Q4 2012" - the news today was that the auction process would start before the end of the year, but "the bidding phase" would begin in early 2013.

But Ofcom was quickly on the phone to insist that there was no new delay, nothing had changed, and that this was how a process which has always involved lengthy consultations had always been envisaged.

No wonder the regulator is sensitive on this point - frustration has mounted at its headquarters on the banks of the Thames as threats of litigation from the ferociously competitive operators have repeatedly set back the prospects for a 4G Britain. Now, with 1,000 pages of detailed documents released today, Ed Richards and his colleagues believe they can finally get the show on the road.

If nobody throws another legal log on the road, the auction should be over by Easter next year. Sometime in the spring, a bank of computers at Ofcom will receive the final online bids from four, perhaps five, perhaps even six aspiring 4G operators, and we will finally be clearer about the future of the mobile internet in the UK.

We know for certain that four players - Vodafone, O2, Everything Everywhere and Three - will be in the running. The first three seem certain to get the spectrum they need - at a price - but the fourth place will go either to Three or to a new entrant to the market. Ofcom is making it clear it would like to see some new blood, and there is speculation that BT, TalkTalk or even Google might be interested. Many analysts, however, think it unlikely that new entrants can make a convincing business case to get involved, and that the status quo will be preserved.

Why should consumers care about any of this? Two reasons - extra capacity and broadband coverage for rural Britain. Some startling figures released this week by Three show just how much data the modern smartphone user is gobbling up. Its average contract customer now consumes 1.1GB per month, compared to just 450MB last summer. All the networks are coming under strain as we use our phones to watch video or play games or check Facebook, so that extra capacity that 4G promises will be needed.

Then there is the possibility that 4G could provide a lifeline to rural Britain, where many people are waiting with increasing impatience for fast broadband. A survey by the research firm Point Topic shows that 13% of UK homes - that's nearly four million - still cannot get broadband speeds higher than 2Mbps. These homes are often in places that are also 3G notspots.

Now Ofcom has made one of the conditions for 4G bidders that they should provide indoor mobile broadband coverage to at least 98% of the population by 2017. For quite a few people, that means a mobile internet connection could be a better and cheaper bet than waiting for fast fibre broadband to come to their door.

Twelve years ago I watched in a room in Canary Wharf as the bids arrived by fax for the 3G licences which we were told would make wireless internet a reality for the first time in the UK. One bidder, Vodafone ended up paying nearly £6bn for its licence - and it was then several years before it actually launched its 3G service.

This time around, the whole auction is expected to raise less than that - but the stakes for the operators and for the future of our technology economy are perhaps even higher. And maybe this time 4G will deliver on that promise of making the wireless internet a reality for everyone in the UK.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    So, the USA has 4G?
    I understood that they had a long way to go before that, hence, Apple being forced to remove the 4G network compatibility advertising.
    Secondly, should this not be reviewed given the probability of needing filters to prevent our freeview boxes from packing in.
    Do we need 4g?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    @19,20: I personally have no sympathy for Three (the network). They sold me a contract that sounded good but not only was coverage patchy, but even when I was standing still with full signal strength making a phonecall at an off-peak time, I still kept getting calls dropped after 60 seconds! They purposely sold more tickets than they had space at their show... Never again, Three...

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    @ 19.jamesvincentuk
    . it seems ofcam are just looking atfer the 3 Big Networks, O2, voda, ee. Three are important to the industry just as much. If I was Three I'd be making a scene by now. Discraeful yet again.

    You're a bit wrong here, OFCOM are protecting 3, EE were forced to give 3 free access to thousands of OUK sites as a condition of the EE merger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    all i care about in this is that ofcom look after what we already have. not gaurenteeing Three spectrum is awfull. screw any new entrants. it seems ofcam are just looking atfer the 3 Big Networks, O2, voda, ee. Three are important to the industry just as much. If I was Three I'd be making a scene by now. Discraeful yet again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    This comes as too little too late. Bids should have been finished by now and the companies should have been set to roll out the services by early next year.

    The process has been too complicated and has taken far too long. 5G isn't far away, I hope we don't see a repeat of this when it becomes available

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Why don't you do an article on Apple's determination to abuse patents to block its competitors' products? I suspect it's because BBC Tech adores Apple and falls for its marketing.

    Back on the topic in hand 4G needs to be regulated properly, given the chance networks will charge extra to use the 4G spectrum and it'll be outside of your data plan. That cannot be allowed to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    3 Hours ago
    4G? no thanks I'll wait for 5G. Tablets and Smartphones will be shipping with 5G chips by Q1 2013 (cdrinfo.com). As usual for UK, too little too late. No wonder our economy is in a triple dip recession.

    Your link refers to the 5th generation of WiFi. I think you're in the wrong place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    4G will be hugely beneficial and offer speeds UP TO 40x that faster than 3G - yes you get degradation the farther you are from a cell but, that's what 'radio' does. There has been some 3G impact, but this is all due to data usage NOT network capacity, and it’s being addressed. I'm heavily involved in LTE, some of these comments are simply ridiculous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    4G? no thanks I'll wait for 5G. Tablets and Smartphones will be shipping with 5G chips by Q1 2013 (cdrinfo.com). As usual for UK, too little too late. No wonder our economy is in a triple dip recession

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    We could have 4G this year if OFCOM would let the operators use the spectrum they already own on 4G.
    OFCOM wont let this happen as they want lots of money for new licences even to the point they are holding spectrum back to force licence prices higher.
    Same as 3G, take too much for the licence so not much money left for the hardware, everyone looses in the end

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Why is 4G being auctioned?Why is only 1 or 2 firms allowed to use this technology?
    Surely this would be the ideal project for taxpayers money to boost the economy and build a solid infrastructure for 4G.The rent it to regain out investment.

    Is it a case of OFCOM saying"Part of the o'l boys network eh?Oh yes,I'll give you a nod for the bid.Just have my cut in shares held offshore if you please"

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Ofcom really are completely toothless, aren't they? As an industry regulator, they should have the power to override individual businesses, yet instead it seems that all the individual businesses have a very long string attached to Ofcom, which they all pull in opposite directions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    "Now Ofcom has made one of the conditions for 4G bidders that they should provide indoor mobile broadband coverage to at least 98% of the population by 2017."

    This is on the same uber-dumb scale of stupidity as Apple changing their dock connector. Only BT or Sky have any sort of large scale WiFi hotspot availability across the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Vodafone/O2/Everything Everywhere need to hang heads in shame,l for the rubbish 3G networks they have delivered.

    Most people would rather they finished this, before building anything an entire hardware refresh is needed to use.l I live 1 mile from M6 Junction 1, and get no relaible 3G from any of the above.

    4G don;t fleece the operators for easy cash, as this fundamentaaly compromiosed 3G.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Will 4G make us any happier?

    Did 3G?

    Will 10G make us any happier?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    1 - Why haven't Ofcom done the right thing and told all operators that all letters of litigation are null and void effective immediately?

    2 - Why is always artificially increasing phone contract prices with a bidding process for spectrum that customers ultimately pay for?

    3 - Why do we continue to allow Ofcom to exist when it is anti-consumer?

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Just ban the words "up to" and make internet companies charges relate to the speed you get.

    When a company can charge £6.99 for real 6Mbps broadband and phone in the city and £30 for less than 200kbps in my villiage just outside of oxford...what is the incentive for the broadband company to reduce my price?

    What is their incentive to upgrade my exchange or check the lines?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Ah joy, the return of false advertising of download speeds and services that simply can't exist when placed against the data packages offered by the operators!

    Given the standard "fair use" average of 3gb of mobile data, with a 4G phone you can tear through that in under 2 minutes if you actually got the speeds promised.

    There's only a handful of operators providing realistic ceilings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    " If Ofcom has made it a requirement that 4G should be widespread that's good, but apparently 90% of the country has 3G, so I wouldn't be surprised if we were the exception again."

    Well 90% vs 98% means you have a 20% chance of being an exception - although you can probably guess based on if you are in a valley in the middle of nowhere you are more likely to fall through the cracks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Better late than never,

    The data from 3 is significant, with their unlimited internet they attract high usage customers customers, will 02* et al change their contracts once 4G arrives? I doubt it, expect to be charged / throttled once you reach the 1Gb limit.

    *Strangly GiffGaff that uses the same network is unlimited!


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