UK completes 4G airwave clearance for mobile networks

Television transmitter
Image caption Engineers have had to carry out work on hundreds of TV transmitters to prepare for the 4G roll-out

The UK's 4G airwave clearance is set to be completed later this Wednesday, five months ahead of the original deadline.

Engineers are expected to sign off on work in the north-east of Scotland and the Western Isles, paving the way for more super-fast mobile networks.

The spectrum was previously used for analogue TV. More than 270 transmitters have had their signals realigned.

Despite the achievement, most of the UK's networks have yet to set a date for the launch of their 4G services.

At present, EE is the only firm with a fourth-generation network in the UK.

Spectrum sale

EE launched its service last October by using some of the 1800MHz spectrum bandwidth previously used for its 2G services. It also sold on a chunk of the frequency to Three, but made it a condition that its rival could not use it until October this year.

In February Ofcom auctioned off other parts of the spectrum to allow more companies to get involved. These were:

  • The 800MHz band previously used by the TV signals. The low frequency is best for providing long-distance 4G services, helping give access to the countryside, as well as offering superior indoor coverage.
  • The 2.6GHz band, which had previously been used by operators of cord-free video cameras to send back footage of live events, including London's Olympic Games. The high frequency can deliver faster speeds but across smaller distances, making it best suited for densely populated cities.
Image caption EE has filmed mobile album downloads to show off the advantages of a 4G connection

Vodafone paid just over £790m for parts of both the two bands.

O2 paid £550m for part of the 800MHz spectrum and Three paid £225m for other parts of the same band.

In addition, EE and BT also submitted winning bids.

'Unfair advantage'

O2, Three and Vodafone had previously opposed EE's early 4G launch claiming it would give the firm an unfair advantage.

Yet more than five months after paying their auction fees, the firms are only providing rough targets for when they plan to launch their next-generation services.

Vodafone and O2 say they intend to begin "this summer". But when questioned they were unable to clarify what they meant by the term.

According to some - including the Met Office - the season runs until the end of August. But it could also mean up to 27 October if used to refer to the day the clocks go an hour back.

Three said it was "on track to launch in Q4", meaning some time in the last three months of the year.

Slow demand

The lack of clarity might appear to offer their competitor a marketing advantage.

Last week, EE announced its 4G service now covered 95 towns and cities offering access to 60% of the UK's population. It added that it had signed 687,000 people up to the facility.

However, some experts believe the other networks have little to gain by rushing out news of their services.

"EE's launch prices were punitive and put quite a lot of people off, which has prevented it from achieving the momentum it could have done," said Marek Pawlowski from the PMN Mobile Industry Intelligence consultancy.

"The user research we've done also suggests few people have seen a tangible benefit. In areas where there isn't much population density the network doesn't exist and in the areas where it is deployed the fact that there are so many people using it means you are unlikely to get the speeds 4G is capable of delivering."

Image caption Official figures show that more than 40% of South Korean mobile users subscribe to a 4G service

To address such complaints EE is running a price promotion and is rolling out "double-speed" 4G equipment to offer downloads that should average between 24 and 30 megabits per second (Mbps). In theory that is fast enough to download a 45 minute high definition TV show in about three minutes.

"We're on course to cover 98% of the UK's population with 4G coverage by the end of 2014, providing the fastest and biggest network," a spokesman told the BBC.

Even so, others agree most UK subscribers have yet to be convinced they need to upgrade.

"At the moment the demand for superfast data speeds isn't there, unlike in places like South Korea," said David Cleevely, a telecoms expert at the University of Cambridge.

"Most people are using their phones for social networking or email, and when they do use them for video it's often stuff they have preloaded.

"Demand will build as people see their peers using high speed services and go 'wow' - but we don't have the critical mass yet."

Meanwhile as the UK's switchover comes to an end, another European country is beginning the process,

Fourteen counties in Hungary had been given until the end of July to switch off their analogue terrestrial TV transmissions. The others must do so by the end of October.

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