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.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It seemed a very odd decison at the time to allow t-mobile and orange to merge and thus increase the power of the networks with one player having over 30% of the market. Now it is coming back to haunt the regulator with EE using its extra bandwidth to make a mockery of fair competition.

  • rate this

    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.

  • rate this

    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?

  • rate this

    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

    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.


Comments 5 of 24



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