BT is one of the companies that will bid for spectrum in the UK's upcoming 4G auction, with others including the big operators Everything Everywhere, O2, Vodafone and Three, as well as PCCW and MLL Telecom.
The entry of BT raises the possibility of the giant telco entering the mobile game again, having left in 2005 when it sold O2 to Spanish rival Telefónica. It is more likely, though, that BT wants to be able to use a '4G' technology such as LTE or WiMax as an alternative to fixed-line broadband, probably in rural deployments.
It is very hard to tell at this point, as even Ofcom does not know yet which companies intend to bid for which chunk of the airwaves — spectrum in both the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands is up for grabs. 800MHz is better for wide-range deployments such as in rural areas, while 2.6GHz provides higher bandwidth but is better suited to clustered deployments such as in city centres.
"The 4G auction will be a competitive process that will dictate the shape of the UK mobile phone market for the next decade and beyond," Ofcom chief Ed Richards said in a statement. "New 4G services will stimulate investment, growth and innovation in the UK and deliver significant benefits to consumers in terms of better, faster and more reliable mobile broadband connections."
Two of the bidders already offer commercial 4G services. Everything Everywhere's EE brand offers Orange and T-Mobile customers LTE services in an increasing number of cities and towns, while PCCW, bidding here under the name of subsidiary HKT UK, also owns UK Broadband, which is running a Chinese variant of 4G called TD-LTE in the 3.5GHz band in relatively limited deployments.
BT is bidding through a new subsidiary called Niche Spectrum Ventures. The remaining bidder, MLL Telecom, is best known as a networks provider for the public sector.
The auction will kick off in January. It has been delayed for many years, leaving the UK far behind other developed and even developing countries. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing — as analysts have noted, this means network operators can learn from the mistakes of their overseas counterparts, and consumers get to join the 4G game with better, post-first-generation devices.