4G peace talks: Could EE get an even earlier start on LTE services?

4G peace talks: Could EE get an even earlier start on LTE services?

Summary: Britain's telecoms minister is holding a critical meeting to decide how quickly UK operators will be able to start offering 4G services. It could result in EE being able to offer 4G LTE from tomorrow - but will it?

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The UK's new culture secretary Maria Miller is getting the big four telecoms operators and Ofcom around a table on Tuesday, in a meeting that could decide the immediate future of 4G in the UK — and clear the way to EE switching on its 4G services.

EE
EE is waiting for the go-ahead to launch its 4G services in the 1800MHz band. Image: EE

The meeting in London will aim to put an end to the acrimonious in-fighting between EE (Everything Everywhere), O2 and Vodafone over Ofcom's decision to allow EE to use its 1800MHz spectrum and give it a year's head start in launching 4G services in the UK.

Tuesday marks the end of a month-long ceasefire, during which Vodafone, O2 and Three agreed not to take further legal action or make official complaints about the spectrum auction process.

EE has everything in place to turn on its high-speed LTE network nationwide, but as part of the ceasefire deal, it was blocked from launching its 4G service. However, if the operators and Ofcom can agree today, there should be nothing to stop EE from switching on the service from tomorrow — though it is unlikely it could move that soon.

4G hold-ups

The threat of legal action has long hung over the auction process due to an imbalance in the amount and type of spectrum owned by each operator. However, the month-long layoff has given Ofcom a chance to see if it can move up the timetable for bringing 4G services in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands online.

Spectrum in the UK

  • 2G/3G/4G spectrum already owned:
    900MHz – Vodafone and O2
    1800MHz – Everything Everywhere, Vodafone, O2
  • 3G spectrum already owned:
    2.1GHz – Vodafone, O2, Everything Everywhere and Three
  • 4G spectrum up for grabs:
    800MHz and 2.6GHz

Bidding in the spectrum auction is set to begin in January 2013, but Ofcom is expected to propose that this be moved forward. However, the spectrum cannot be used for 4G services until the bands have been cleared of the analogue television broadcasts and air traffic control that currently use it — a process that could take many months.

According to the BBC, digital TV switchover manager Arqiva has found a way of clearing spectrum by spring 2013, with a view to launching new services in May or June.

ZDNet understands that Ofcom now intends that all 800MHz clearance will have taken place by the end of 2013, as opposed to the original target of early 2014. In addition, it is believed to want the 2.6GHz band to be cleared by the end of March 2014.

If these moves satisfy EE's rivals, the way will be cleared to decide when O2 and Vodafone can launch high-speed 4G LTE services in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands, and when Three can introduce its own high-speed network on 1800MHz spectrum it bought from EE. 

And that means consumers may be a little closer to enjoying the download speeds of up to 100Mbps promised by 4G, which was the point of the whole saga in the first place.

READ MORE: 4G in the UK: What it means for you

Topics: 4G, Mobility, Networking, Telcos, United Kingdom

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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