4G timetable agreed by UK mobile network operators

Culture secretary Maria Miller Culture secretary Maria Miller brokered the talks

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The UK's mobile operators have agreed a new timetable for the roll-out of 4G services.

At a meeting with communications regulator Ofcom and the government, rival operators agreed to settle their differences and get services up and running quickly.

The government said high-speed data services should launch by spring 2013, six months earlier than planned.

O2 and Vodafone have agreed not to pursue legal action against EE.

Both had been unhappy that EE had been granted permission to add 4G to its existing network later this year.

Co-operation

EE is likely to announce when its services will go live imminently.

"Delivering 4G quickly is a key part of our economic growth strategy," said Culture Secretary Maria Miller.

"I am grateful to the mobile operators for their co-operation in bringing forward vital 4G services."

A combination of factors, from a change of government to threats of legal action from operators, had slowed down the process to free up spectrum used by analogue television broadcasts.

While the auction of the airwaves made available by the digital switchover is still scheduled for January next year, clearing them for 4G use will happen far more quickly than originally envisaged.

Ofcom said that it had secured the earlier release of frequencies that were previously used for digital-terrestrial broadcasting.

Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive, said: "The actions we have taken with industry and government avoid the risk of significant delay and are tremendous news for consumers who might otherwise have waited a considerable period for the next generation of mobile broadband services."

4G speed tested

Three was the first operator to comment, following the meeting.

A spokesman said: "We see this as positive step for UK consumers by removing the monopoly on LTE that would have benefitted just one operator." LTE, or Long Term Evolution, is the flavour of 4G that UK operators will be deploying.

Ambitious roll-outs

Delays to the auction mean that the UK has fallen behind other countries.

"After more than five years in the making, finally the schedule to award spectrum for 4G appears to have been agreed," said Matthew Howett, an analyst with research firm Ovum.

"In a matter of weeks, the UK has gone from being behind countries such as Angola, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to one with one of the most ambitious 4G roll-out strategies we have seen."

EE is likely to start the roll-out of its 4G services later this month. It asked Ofcom in November last year if it could use its existing spectrum for 4G services, and permission was granted in August.

The service will run on its 1800MHz spectrum, a band not owned by either O2 or Vodafone. Three is also set to take ownership of some of EE's existing 4G-spectrum, but will not do so until September 2013.

EE has already promised to offer 4G services to 16 UK cities before the end of the year and aims to provide 4G to 98% of the UK by 2014.

Commenting after the meeting, an EE spokesman said: "We welcome the outcome of today's meeting with the Culture Secretary and Ofcom, and thank them for their support in removing any threat of litigation and driving the speedy introduction of next generation 4G mobile networks for Britain.

Rivals initially feared that its early launch would give EE an unfair advantage. The issue was compounded when it was revealed that Apple's first 4G-enabled handset, the iPhone 5, would only work on EE's network.

Now that O2 and Vodafone had dropped their threats of legal action to block the roll-out, they would still be playing catch-up, said Mr Howett.

"Ultimately the advantage EE has with its early 4G launch will depend on how well the other operators respond," he said.

"Much has been made of the iPhone 5 '4G exclusivity' that EE will have, however the other players have also been busy upgrading their 3G technologies, that for a time will almost rival EE's 4G speed capability."

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