Ofcom has made clear the extent to which the UK is lagging behind other countries in deploying 4G mobile broadband.
At least 55 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, the US and Japan, will have begun offering commercial long-term evolution (LTE) services by the end of 2012, with some of those countries having already started, the regulator's annual Communications Market Report, published on Thursday, stated. UK operators will offer no such services, which provide a significant speed and capacity boost over today's 3G services, until 2014 at the earliest.
That starting point for commercial LTE services going live in the UK is based on a timetable laid out by Ofcom chief Ed Richards in mid-November. According to the regulator's schedule, the much-delayed auction of the relevant 800MHz and 2.6GHz radio spectrum — an auction which was originally supposed to take place in 2008 — will only occur in the first quarter of 2012. Only at the end of 2013 will the spectrum be cleared of such occupants as, for example, those who use wireless microphones.
Some analysts have even suggested that UK operators will be able to support growing mobile data usage with their current networks, making a deployment of LTE unjustifiable before 2015. However, this analysis runs contrary to the industry's received wisdom, which has revenues steadily falling.
Ofcom's report backs this up, showing telco revenues around the world to be flat or falling, including in the UK, where there was a 3.1 percent drop between 2008 and 2009. As has been the case for a while, declining voice revenues are a prime factor. The growth in mobile and fixed telecoms takeup is slowing, though, and the combination of strong competition and an economic downturn has also taken its toll.
On the fixed side, the telecoms industry is future-proofing itself through an enormous rollout of usually fibre-based next-generation access (NGA), offering speeds of up to 100Mbps or even, in some countries, 1Gbps. The most that can be squeezed out of the existing copper networks is around 20Mbps. Here, the UK lags behind North America and Asia, but BT's big rollout will see 40 percent of the country's population passed by fibre by the end of 2012.
LTE also offers a significant jump in speed — from the 14Mbps theoretical maximum of today's HSPA+ networks to a real-world average of around 50Mbps, depending on how many other people are using the network. Switching to LTE means a significant drop in operational costs, and some operators are champing at the bit. Everything Everywhere — the merged operations of T-Mobile UK and Orange UK — "has stated that it aims to start building an LTE network in 2011", Ofcom's report notes.
The report shows that many people are abandoning their fixed lines for a mobile-only lifestyle, and this is one reason for the overall industry's falling revenues. However, it notes, 84 percent of the UK population still have a landline. As UK ISPs do not offer so-called naked DSL — DSL broadband connections without an associated telephone service — landlines are necessary here, which also explains another statistic from Ofcom's report.
Only five percent of the population here use VoIP services, but some other countries where naked DSL is available, such as France and the Netherlands, have VoIP takeup as high as 26 percent.
Ofcom's report also included some statistics about the mix of smartphone operating systems in the UK and elsewhere. In a survey, conducted by comScore for Ofcom, of the UK, France, Italy, Germany and Spain, the UK and France were the only countries where Symbian has a market share below 50 percent. In Italy, 76 percent of the smartphone-using population are on Nokia's mid-tier OS.
In the UK and France, Apple's iOS powers 21 percent and 30 percent of smartphones respectively. Interestingly, 19 percent of UK smartphone users are on RIM's BlackBerry OS, giving it more than three times the market share here than it has in the other European countries surveyed. Ofcom's figures only go up to January 2010, so Google's Android system, which has rocketed up in popularity during the past year, only registers as having three percent of the UK market.
The UK seems to have the fastest smartphone takeup of all countries surveyed — subscriber numbers shot up by 70 percent between the starts of 2009 and 2010 — as well as the most enthusiastic use of online shopping (19 percent takeup, with Poland second on 14 percent and other countries far behind), digital TV (91 percent takeup, equalling that in Spain), and digital radio (31 percent takeup).