British taxpayers can expect to make at least £1.4bn from the 4G spectrum auction, Ofcom said on Tuesday as it published a fresh set of proposals for the mobile broadband sale.
However, some of the spectrum — specifically, the 800MHz band — is still being used in some regions to deliver analogue TV services. It won't be cleared for mobile broadband until late 2013, which is when Ofcom now expects operators to start offering 4G services.
"The 4G auction has been designed to deliver the maximum possible benefit to consumers and citizens across the UK," Ofcom chief Ed Richards said in a statement. "As a direct result of the measures Ofcom is introducing, consumers will be able to surf the web, stream videos and download email attachments on their mobile device from almost every home in the UK."
The plans echo proposals made by Ofcom in January, but with some significant changes. One change should make sure mobile broadband coverage reaches even far-flung parts of Scotland, while another guarantees widespread indoor coverage.
In addition, the regulator has dispelled fears that Three will not be guaranteed to get 800MHz spectrum. However, it has halved the amount set aside for the UK's fourth-largest mobile operator.
Setting the reserve
The proposals mark the first time Ofcom has explicitly laid out the reserve prices of the various lots in the 4G auction. The total for the reserve is around £1.4bn, or £1.6bn if you include 1800MHz spectrum that may or may not make it into the auction.
When T-Mobile UK and Orange UK merged into Everything Everywhere, a condition of the European Commission's approval was that the merged operation get rid of some of its 1800MHz band — this could happen through either the wider 4G auction or a private sale.
At the 3G auction a dozen years ago, bidding went out of control, giving the Treasury an astonishing £22.5bn. Given the amount of time it actually took consumers to start using 3G on a widespread basis, this overpayment almost crippled some of the operators. It is very unlikely that they will make the same mistake again.
"Taking a complete punt, I would say this auction will raise £4bn," analyst Dean Bubley, of Disruptive Analysis, told ZDNet. "At that sort of price it works out at about £65 per person. To me that sounds reasonable, given the economic uncertainty and the fact that there is a risk that we end up creating overcapacity in mobile broadband."
The 4G auction was originally supposed to happen in late 2008, but Bubley said he did not think the UK had suffered because of the delay.
"In many ways this means that by the time the 4G networks get deployed, UK operators will have a much better idea about the likely pattern of demand, and will be able to get the second generation of LTE kit, which is cheaper," he said.
As for Ofcom, a spokesman also predicted that the bonanza of 2000 will not be repeated.
"Our motivation is not to raise money," the regulator's spokesman said. "Our motivation is to get a good outcome for consumers, and to ensure four credible national wholesalers."
The regulator has extended one of the more interesting parts of its January proposals in the latest tranche. Earlier, it wanted to see one of the operators that won 800MHz spectrum (which is good for long-distance services) forced to provide coverage to 98 percent of the UK population.
However, the new proposal adds a new element: the operator now has to provide 98 percent of the population with indoor mobile broadband coverage. In effect, that means more than 99.5 percent outdoor coverage as well.
"Our motivation is not to raise money. Our motivation is to get a good outcome for consumers, and to ensure four credible national wholesalers" — Ofcom
What is more, the operator will have to provide at least 95 percent coverage in each of the nations in the UK. That means it cannot just provide 100 percent coverage in England, where rollouts are generally cheaper, and leave those in rural Scotland with substandard service.
According to Bubley, the switch to mandating indoor coverage will have implications for more than just consumers.
"One of the interesting implications is that the indoor coverage is necessary from a machine-to-machine point of view as well as the consumer," he said. "The Coke machine can't go and stand by the window if it's got weak signal."
Ofcom's plan has always been to have...