The roll-out of 4G mobile networks will be delayed until at least 2013, a leading telecoms analyst said on Friday.
Ovum analyst Matthew Howlett said LTE-based services would not be launched for at least another three years because a statutory instrument, which has to be passed to Ofcom by parliament so the regulator can establish spectrum actions, was shelved in the days running up to the election. LTE, or the 'long-term evolution' of 3G, is widely seen as the technology that will succeed current 3G services.
Howlett said that auctions of spectrum in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz frequency bands — which are essential for LTE — will be delayed because the new government may be reluctant to deal with the instrument with the urgency it requires.
The instrument could take 12-18 months to be passed to Ofcom, Howlett suggested, although he added that there was considerable uncertainty over that timescale.
"Our view is that it will take at least a year to get around to resurrecting this [instrument] and to debate this in parliament," Howlett said. "Only after that can an action process [of establishing the spectrum auctions] start, so adding 12-18 months onto what was planned takes us into 2013. If the directive had gone through [prior to the election], they had hoped to have the auctions in 2011."
The analyst said the UK was in danger of losing its competitive position if the auctions were not given a higher priority. "We're a bit worried because elsewhere in Europe, things are moving more quickly," said Howlett. "There are bigger things to deal with like the budget deficit. We're going to be left behind because of this problem."
Howlett said the auction could also be delayed by issues such as spectrum refarming — where 2G frequencies are allocated to 3G services — and other operator disputes over their spectrum allocations. "It's a real mess and something that does need to be tackled fairly quickly," Howlett said, adding that having an independent adjudicator might be the quickest way to resolve disputes. "We've seen an explosion in traffic. The upgrades will need to take place," he said.
A source familiar with UK telecoms regulation confirmed to ZDNet UK that the issue is "probably not high on the list of priorities" for politicians. The source said the instrument could be laid down in a "matter of months", but that would depend on the intentions of the new government.
Both Ofcom and BIS declined to say when they considered the auctions would happen.
"Ofcom will implement any direction agreed by parliament, and is ready to get the mobile spectrum modernisation programme moving," the regulator said in a statement sent to ZDNet UK on Friday.
A BIS spokesperson told ZDNet UK the timescale for the auctions remained "pure speculation".
Some operators such as O2 have trialled LTE, which will offer headline speeds of around 100Mbps. Current networks would be able to offer speeds of up to 56Mbps, if operators were to roll out the latest iteration of 3G technology, HSPA+.
Separately, the European Commission said on Thursday that it had established pan-EU technical rules for the roll-out of mobile broadband in the 800MHz band, which is being freed up by the digital switchover. This would reduce the amount of interference between cellular networks and ensure the consistency and efficiency of mobile broadband handsets and network equipment, the Commission said.
The EC also hinted that it would make it mandatory for EU member states to transfer the 800MHz band from broadcast to mobile broadband use, as part of the turn-off of analogue broadcasting spectrum. This freeing-up of spectrum is known as the 'digital dividend'. A final decision is expected this summer.
Howlett said this would not help the UK for several years, however, because of its ongoing spectrum issues.