Hardware makers, get your UK-tailored LTE devices ready: 4G is just around the corner.
British phone and tablet fans are late getting to the 4G party — it's undeniable. While the UK was one of the first countries in Europe to get going on 3G, it will be one of the last to allocate spectrum to operators for its successor.
But that is set to change, now that Ofcom has opened the door to operators using the 1800MHz band for 4G services. The move paves the way for the UK to get 4G versions of existing mobile devices, such as Apple's iPad or the Samsung Galaxy range — something people in other countries are already enjoying.
This week, UK telecoms regulator Ofcom gave permission for Everything Everywhere to begin reusing its existing 1800MHz spectrum for 4G services. In quick succession, Everything Everywhere (EE) — the parent of T-Mobile and Orange — announced it is selling portions of that band to rival Three, allowing it too to start planning a 4G launch.
This means that 4G services are likely to start arriving in the UK from at least one of these two operators by the end of the year. But on top of this, the moves should put an end to legal squabbling among operators that was stalling the rollout of super-fast mobile broadband, according to minister Jeremy Hunt.
No more delays?
While EE is the only company that can today start working towards offering 4G services, it doesn't make much sense for rival operators to lodge any further objections to the auction itself.
Other operators (Vodafone, O2) involved in the auction process undoubtedly want to get it moving as fast as possible, as they have a vested interest in playing catch up to Everything Everywhere. Further threats of litigation would make their rival's head-start only longer.
However, a disappointed Vodafone has argued that Everything Everywhere itself now has a reason to further delay the auction process, given its head start.
While as a logical proposition that may be true, it takes a particularly cynical view to reach that conclusion, and the basis for such a challenge from Everything Everywhere remains a mystery.
Three, the UK's smallest major operator, has been fairly outspoken about the lack of spectrum equality in the past. But it too now has a reason — its new 1800MHz band blocks — to stop complaining and start working towards its 4G launch.
Three may not be able to use its two 15MHz blocks of 1800MHz spectrum for 4G services until Everything Everywhere's traffic stops running across it in September 2013. However, there is a chance that the operator could allow Three to use the spectrum for 4G before that point.
Heading off objections
This could also help if Everything Everywhere sees objections filed to Ofcom's decision. If the challenge is that allowing one network to roll out services excludes millions of UK consumers, this can be countered by pointing out that it does make 4G available to 27 million.
It doesn't make much sense for rival operators to lodge any further objections to the auction itself
Complainants could also argue that the move gives the T-Mobile and Orange parent an unfair advantage and creates an uncompetitive landscape. If that does become a barrier, then Everything Everywhere can now turn around and allow Three to start offering 4G services, creating some competition for customers.
While Ofcom's decision was never going to please everyone, the regulators have been quite canny in effectively creating a situation in which no single operator benefits from further delays to the spectrum auction.
The arrival of 4G LTE in the UK has been a long-drawn-out affair, but that looks like it's now coming to an end.