The UK could get 4G even without the spectrum that will be sold off in a much-delayed auction, after Everything Everywhere asked Ofcom to let 2G licence-holders start using their GSM spectrum for LTE mobile broadband as soon as possible.
Everything Everywhere has asked Ofcom to let 2G licence-holders start using their GSM spectrum for 4G mobile broadband as soon as possible. Photo credit: Karen Friar
The operator said on Thursday that it wants the regulator to "allow UK mobile operators to deliver 4G to Britain as soon as possible for the public good". Ofcom said it will consider the request in the first quarter of this year.
Depending on the timing of Ofcom's response, the move could theoretically allow operators to start rolling out 4G LTE phones and services in the UK before the upcoming auction of spectrum in the 4G-friendly 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands.
That auction is scheduled for the end of this year, which means services using the new spectrum could not be introduced until 2013, well behind the rollout in other countries. 4G technologies, notably LTE, offer faster and more efficient mobile broadband than 3G technologies can provide.
Since regulations were changed one year ago, it has become legal for operators to 'refarm' their 2G spectrum in the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands for 3G or 4G mobile broadband. However, so far only O2 has actually done this, reusing its GSM spectrum to provide better in-building 3G coverage in major cities.
Although the European Commission ordered refarming to be allowed and this has now been transposed into the UK's rules, the national regulator still has to assess refarming applications.
Now, Everything Everywhere has formally asked the regulator for permission for 2G licensees to be allowed to refarm that spectrum for 4G services.
"We have received a request from Everything Everywhere for the relevant licences to be amended as soon as possible," Ofcom said in documentation released on Thursday, related to revised auction rules. "We propose to consider this application outside of our proposals on the auction, in accordance with our obligations under the [European] Directives and the Wireless Telegraphy Act 2006, in the first quarter of 2012."
Everything Everywhere told ZDNet UK that it was keen to start upgrading its network to take advantage of the refarmed spectrum.
"Everything Everywhere has made a request for Ofcom to take timely action on the liberalisation of existing spectrum (as mandated by the European Commission) to allow UK mobile operators to deliver 4G to Britain as soon as possible for the public good," the operator said.
"In today's proposal, Ofcom said only that it would consider the request in the first quarter of 2012 — without giving indication of when we could expect the liberalisation licence to be granted."
The operator cannot predict whether it will be able to roll out 4G before next year, as "it is impossible for us to make a call on timing until we know what [Ofcom's] plans are", an Everything Everywhere spokeswoman said.
Everything Everywhere's 2G spectrum lies in the 1800MHz band. Although the operator has long argued this is less suitable for 4G than sub-1GHz spectrum, on Thursday Ofcom scrapped its previous guarantee that Everything Everywhere would get 800MHz spectrum in the upcoming auction.
O2 and Vodafone, which already have sub-1GHz spectrum in the form of their 900MHz 2G holdings, had complained that the guarantee was unfair. The clash was a major factor in the auction being delayed for more than three years.
Ofcom said it had reversed its position because its research showed 1800MHz was in fact suitable for 4G. As it can be used over greater distances than 2.6GHz and provide faster internet than 800MHz or 900MHz, the band provides something of a trade-off between bandwidth and range.
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