September 25, 2012

4G in the UK : What the heck ?



We here at are somewhat baffled by what is happening with 4G wireless in the UK. We remember back in 2003 when Three were the first to launch 3G in the UK and the other mobile operators launched thereafter in an orderly manner. We would call this a “clean” launch of 3G across the UK. The rest is history.

Now nearly ten years later we are here as an “outsider looking in” to the goings-on with 4G wireless in the UK and wonder what the heck is going on. Well we do have a fair idea yet we doubt many others do e.g. an iPhone 5 buyer.

The 4G auction in the UK has been delayed a number of times and for various reasons. The 4G auction was originally due to take place way back in 2009 but was put back to 2011 at the time of a change of government. Next came a delay to mid-2012 and then late 2012. The very latest planned auction date was for Spring 2012. Now hear that many websites (e.g. The Telegraph ) is reporting that O2 may be asking for the 4G auction to be brought forward.

The above 4G auction start, stop, delay, bring forward scenario may at first glance not be seen as a big deal, yet has far reaching implications for 4G mobile phone manufacturers, software developers, mobile operators and of course 4G phone buyers.

Ofcom which manages and approves the 4G auction process in the UK need to ensure fair competition between the mobile operators in the UK and ensure the correct 4G network coverage in the UK via the new 4G frequency spectrum being auctioned in the 800 MHz and 2.6GHz frequency bands.

As you can appreciate with the latest 4G auction date of Spring 2012, the UK mobile phone operators were gearing up their launch programs accordingly, phone manufacturers were adding 4G chips for the 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands, and software developers were getting their Operating Systems such as BlackBerry ready to take off in the UK.

4G don’t really know how much this has delayed mobile operators from preparing their 4G networks, or what manufacturing planning has been undertaken by the 4G phone makers etc but we are sure that it has been a great deal.

One mobile operator which gained greatly in the race to 4G in the UK was EE ( Everything Everywhere ) which owns Orange and T-Mobile. While other mobile operators were gearing up for the 4G auction, EE short-circuited the 4G auction process by reallocating some old 2G frequency spectrum for 4G services. Ofcom approved the use of EE’s 1800MHz 2G spectrum for 4G network roll out in August this year.

It’s fair to say this came as a surprise to us and possibly the other UK mobile operators. It means that Vodafone, O2 and Three won’t be authorised to launch 4G until sometime around Summer 2013. EE are currently undertaking 4G network and consumer trials in the UK with the aim of launching 4G in 16 cities this year. Vodafone, O2  and Three will realistically be unable to launch 4G in the UK until up to one year after EE.

This brings us back to the 4G auction whereby the UK mobile operators won’t have Ofcom approval to launch 4G until the Summer of 2012. The only way Vodafone, O2 and Three can reduce their 4G launch lag times is for Ofcom to agree to bring their auction and approval dates forward. This sounds feasible but one of the frequency bands being auctioned ( the 800MHz band ) is currently being used for Analogue TV and Air Traffic Control. Analogue TV will continue to be beamed in the 800 MHz band until September 2012 and is a major obstacle to releasing it for 4G wireless. Likewise, Air Traffic control need a replacement bandwidth and we have not heard much about this.

There is also talk of Virgin Media launching 4G before Vodafone, O2 and Three which will obviously increase the anger level of the mobile operators missing out.

The current situation is really confusing to many people and we hear at 4G would just like something “set in stone” and experience the full potential of 4G in the UK.

If you think the above is somewhat confusing wait till you see our next article “4G Phones in the UK” which will examine the various 4G phones and their compatibility or otherwise with 4G and which mobile operators will offer 4G phones.