4G - peace in our time?

 
Man and woman walk past mural using smartphones

It's a crucial meeting at which Britain's hi-tech future could be decided. Later on Tuesday, the new Culture Secretary Maria Miller presides over peace talks between the chief executives of the major mobile phone operators and Ofcom's boss Ed Richards.

The issue at stake - can the 4G auction be accelerated enough to convince O2 and Vodafone not to go to war with Ofcom over what they see as favouritism towards their rival Everything Everywhere?

Having seen a letter written by Mr Richards to the culture secretary outlining the shape of a deal, I'd be surprised if peace does not break out.

But first a quick reminder of how we got here. Back in August, Ofcom announced that it would allow Everything Everywhere - now EE - to use its existing 1,800Mhz spectrum to start its 4G service early. Its rivals, without enough of that spectrum to adopt a similar strategy, threatened legal action to challenge Ofcom's ruling and prevent EE from launching 4G.

Then, in one of his last acts as Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt negotiated a four-week ceasefire - EE would agree to hold off announcing a 4G launch date, its rivals would keep their lawyers on the leash. Now that ceasefire is over and Tuesday's meeting should decide what happens next.

What O2 and Vodafone wanted was reassurance that EE's window of exclusivity would be shortened by having the whole 4G auction accelerated. Ofcom's letter - which has been copied to all the operators - asserts that considerable progress has been made.

Start Quote

A new body has been created to ensure that 4G signals do not interfere with digital television”

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The January date of the auction itself can only be brought forward by a couple of weeks, but much more has been done, says Ofcom, about the process of clearing the spectrum for use by its new owners. With analogue television and air traffic control currently using some of the airwaves, it was expected to take until the end of 2013 for this job to be completed. Now, says Ofcom, the hope is that it can be completed in the late spring, so that new 4G services could start rolling out to many parts of the UK in May or June 2013.

The other issue for O2 and Vodafone has been that EE might try to delay the process. A new body Mitco, financed by all the operators, has been created to ensure that 4G signals do not interfere with digital television. The fear was that it would be in EE's interest to make sure this work did not proceed too rapidly. But on this point too, Ofcom has been eager to reassure the government that Mitco will do its job as rapidly as possible.

All in all, Ofcom believes that EE's period of being the only 4G game in town will shrink from as much as 18 months to as little as six months. O2 in particular will want to see the fine print before telling its masters at Telefonica that this deal is acceptable. But it seems likely that they will sign up rather than risk being seen as the company which delayed the arrival of a vital technology for the UK.

And if it does all work out, Ofcom will be entitled to feel just a little smug. By taking a risk with its EE ruling, it will have forced the whole mobile industry to focus on a faster transition to 4G.

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

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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 24.

    Just watched BBC about 4G. testing 1 person on 4G was 10 times faster than the 3G service with millions on it ???
    anyone else noticed something wrong here??
    hope they keep running 3G will end up faster using that

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 23.

    20 Dan

    As I understand it, 4G in the 800MHz band should provide greater coverage per mast than 3G, so it's more cost-effective than adding new masts in the face of local opposition, to support a standard that is about to be superseded.

    More cynically, mobile providers are purely out to make money, so they won't put a mast where it won't cover its costs, unless obliged to do so by the state.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 22.

    4G! Great but not a concern for me here in Cambridgeshire. Signal of O2, Vodafone and EE are sporadic, at best. Message to Ofcom. Please sort out a 'National Grid' of ALL carriers to provide an acceptable service to those of us who are outside the major conurbations. If O2 and Voda have the technical ability to do this and you've given the OK for this why not add EE and 3 for the benefit of all?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 21.

    Recently came back from holiday in the Greek islands, I was initially worried about data costs on my phone, but once their found out that no matter where you stand (town, bar, beech, hotel, airport, mountain) you have access to minimum 5 entirely FREE wifi access points!!! No passwords, no logon pages, everyone happily shares their WiFi!!!

    Why do we need 4G? Oh yes that's right PROFIT!!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 20.

    I completely agree with the comments here about poor existing coverage. Even in the town centres in my part of the world (East Dorset), I'm lucky if I can get a basic 2G data signal, let alone Edge or 3G.

    Why don't the network providers focus on providing a decent level of 3G coverage outside a handful of major cities, before they start falling over themselves to roll out 4G?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 19.

    Whatever comes out of this the mobile companies will still preside over patchy and poor coverage of the UK. It is time the government started to attack the licences of the operators. I recently cancelled EE because of their "harmonisation" of cell sites, I lost any decent coverage. I worked in the telecoms industry for 40 years and the operators do not look at technical excellence merely profit.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 18.

    2G, 3G, 4G - it's laughable. I live near Bristol and have a job to send a text message let alone browse the web.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 17.

    Vodaphone and O2 to roll it out in 2013. The phone companies should be made to identify where 4G will not be received before allowing a consumer to purchase a new unit. I am not alone in only getting 2G, at best. Packaging should identify the phone one buys. Useless buying a 4G capable phone if it wont work at home! Ombudsman powerless to help

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 16.

    4G Pah,
    3G whatever,

    Can i please just have 2G that works without standing on one leg in an upstairs bedroom (near a window) and only at the front of the house?

  • Comment number 15.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    @ 4. Why do stupid people make stupid comments etc etc

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 13.

    So EE has the 4G advantage, it doesn't have to pay for the bandwidth they already have, this is a big downfall to all those coming from behind.
    As many of us remember with the 3G saga, the cost put most of the Telco's on the brink of bankruptcy and 3G was delayed by over 6 years being rolled out, do the same here and EE have the market leaving the other operators out of the game. Nice move Ofcom.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 12.

    A few points I'd like to make:
    !) It still can't be called 4G as it isn't fast enough
    2) As soon as everyone starts using 3.95G it will slow to the same speeds as everyone gets now with 3G.
    3) Once again ofcon seem to be on the side of big business rather than the consumer that they're supposed to be protecting.

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 11.

    The key question on 4G is not whether the airwaves can cope, but whether humans can cope with the increased electro-pollution running at 30Mbps. And since it’s a class 2b carcinogen, mobile companies will need enhanced insurance for future claims. Doctors are already saying that electro-pollution now causes or contributes to 80% of ill health. Why not use more fibre optic cables?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 10.

    The most significant impact of 4G will be on rural broadband mobile coverage. This has more to do with the new 800 MHz frequency spectrum than the technology. At 800 the signals travel much further. One of the reason 3G coverage has been so poor is that it was rolled out using 2.3 GHz spectrum. In capacity terms 4G is better than 3G but WiFi and Femto Cells are much better still.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 9.

    One bog problem with 4G is that they will have to steal the radio spectrum between 700 and 800 MHz - which is already used for almost 20% of Digital Terrestrial Broadcasts by Freeview! If they are allowed to steal that bandwidth then about 100 Freeview transmitters/transponders will have to be modified and many millions of DTV sets retuned yet again!
    Terrible plan, ill considered.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 8.

    I wish they would sort out 3g first before introducing 4g. At work I have to turn off the 3g on my phone to get a signal on the EE network.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 7.

    edit to post 6 should have been jan 2011

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 6.

    Lets not forget that o2 have been planning for 4g for a few years and are in the process of a 3 year network upgrade that supports 4g by way of a software upgrade to the base stations. Awarded to nsn and ericsson jan 2010

    O2 and vodafone ( now entered into mast sharing agreement) could have a very large 4g coverage footprint soon after the launch of propper 4g in the 800mhz band cleared by dso.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 5.

    It may also end up costing us all (as taxpayers) when the 4G auction is held as if EE already have enough bandwidth they will not be a serrious bidder, 3G earned so much money becuase there were more bidders than licences, 4G could be a complete flop in comparison.

 

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