3G bad, 4G better?

Man and woman holding phones

"Spectrum?" says a colleague as I return from a briefing on that subject at Ofcom. "Wasn't that who Captain Scarlet worked for?"

I explain loftily that spectrum is nothing to do with a 1960s children's programme but is "the hidden infrastructure that underpins technology, manufacturing and services".

That at least is how Ofcom's boss Ed Richards describes it, in a very high-fibre session on the regulator's radio spectrum plans. Just how the UK plans to ensure that the UK keeps ahead on managing the airwaves over the next decade, and how the technology might develop is obviously vitally important for our economy.

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Consumers are not that interested in futurology - many of them want to know why they haven't yet got decent 3G”

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But for all the talk of White Spaces technology, machine-to-machine communication and even 5G, it is when he looks back, not forward that Mr Richards makes the most arresting point. I put it to him that consumers are not that interested in futurology - many of them want to know why they haven't yet got decent 3G, let alone 4G.

His response surprises me in its frankness. "The wrong decision was made about coverage of 3G." Mobile operators were only required to reach 80% of the population under the terms of the 3G auction. "That stored up a problem of 20% of people not being able to get the service that everyone else had."

Conveniently, of course, that decision was made in the 1990s before Ofcom existed, but its consequences, according to Ed Richards, are being felt today. He says the lessons were learned when it came to 4G.

The 4G auction has been criticised - it only earned £2.3bn compared to the £22.5bn for 3G - but he says that this process has delivered a better outcome for more people. This time, one licence stipulates 98% indoor coverage, which effectively means 99% outdoors. "We have taken action to make sure there will be near-universal coverage. People will see a big difference in the next three to four years."

Mr Richards also sees a role for 4G in filling the gaps in superfast broadband coverage in rural areas, along with satellite coverage and the new White Spaces technology. This employs spare spectrum not used for digital TV broadcasts, and will be trialled over the coming months.

Microsoft will test its use in Glasgow to provide free public wi-fi in a city with the lowest rates of broadband uptake in the UK. And on the Isle of Wight a business called Click4internet will be working out whether White Spaces can be employed to reach places where the terrain poses challenges for conventional wireless broadband.

Ofcom believes that these days Britain is as well placed as anywhere to to deliver fast fixed and mobile broadband to just about everyone. But the 20% who have been starved of 3G coverage (often in the same places as the broadband "notspots") are entitled to ask why it has taken so long to fix things.

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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    why are we messing around with mobile internet 3G/4G etc.... when a working technology exists, such as broadband through a wireless router. Just set up a wireless router on every traffic light or something. Last time I was at starbucks / mcd, it was blazingly fast. just a thought...

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    @16 - you think 3g/4g is/will-be different in the city than your subsidised-by-fellow-humanity utopia you call Rural Britain? (which you appear to be taking for granted?). OK, 3g a tad better here but you get to listen to morning bird song, I get to listen to my teens' shrieks when social media fails again.. somehow always daddy's fault as her drug of choice fails to relieve her from the rat race

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Using spectrum that is currently used for DTT (Freeview) is likely to mean much more retuning being needed in the next few years-much to the disgust on many viewers. It will also mean more problems with bad reception and loss of TV because of co-channel interference as more transmitters have to share frequencies. Bad idea for TV viewers everywhere. 4G is not good yet either, who's for 5G? Not me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    "The 4G auction has been criticised - it only earned £2.3bn compared to the £22.5bn for 3G"

    Oh diddums.

    All these billions for what exactly? A phenomenon that the laws of physics provide for free.

    Not so much money for old rope but more like out-and-out fraud.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Great. Can rip off albums and download porn (spelt 'movies') faster than ever before ... and, since I'm not using the home broadband, Mum and Dad need never know.

    I have yet to hear a legitimate reason for more than about 100KB/s mobile.


Comments 5 of 143



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