UK to get 4G this year as T-Mobile and Orange win Ofcom permission

UK to get 4G this year as T-Mobile and Orange win Ofcom permission

Summary: The regulator has updated Everything Everywhere's licences to allow the operator to reuse its 2G spectrum for 4G fast mobile broadband - as much as a year before rivals get to play the 4G game

TOPICS: 4G, Broadband, Mobility

Everything Everywhere, the company behind the T-Mobile and Orange brands in the UK, will be allowed to offer 4G services from 11 September.

Everything Everywhere
Everything Everywhere can start selling 4G services.

The regulator, Ofcom, gave permission for the move on Tuesday, allowing Everything Everywhere (EE) to roll out fast mobile broadband before its rivals can. EE requested Ofcom's permission in January, and got a preliminary green light in March.

Now Ofcom has formally issued EE with new licences that let the operator reuse its existing 2G spectrum, originally designated for voice and text, for 4G services from 11 September.

EE has previously said that it is ready to start offering 4G services this year, if given permission by Ofcom.

"Ofcom's decision to make 4G available this year is great news for the UK," EE said in response. "Consumers will soon be able to benefit from the much greater mobile speeds that 4G will deliver. 4G will drive investment, employment and innovation and we look forward to making it available later this year, delivering superfast mobile broadband to the UK."

Ofcom also said consumers would benefit from the move.

"Following a consultation, Ofcom has concluded that varying EE's 1800 MHz licences now will deliver significant benefits to consumers, and that there is no material risk that those benefits will be outweighed by a distortion of competition," the regulator said. "Delaying doing so would therefore be to the detriment of consumers."

READ THIS: 4G in the UK: What does it mean for you?

However, rival operator Vodafone said it was "frankly shocked that Ofcom has reached this decision".

"The regulator has shown a careless disregard for the best interests of consumers, businesses and the wider economy through its refusal to properly regard the competitive distortion created by allowing one operator to run services before the ground has been laid for a fully competitive 4G market," a Vodafone spokesperson said.

Vodafone also characterised Ofcom's timing as "particularly bizarre", given that EE is reportedly in talks to sell some of its 1800MHz spectrum to the smaller operator Three, which has no such spectrum of its own. If that sale goes through, Three could then theoretically roll out 4G services of its own without needing to buy anything at the upcoming 4G spectrum auction.

Auction balance

Bidding in that auction is supposed to start early next year. Operators who win spectrum in the auction should be able to start using it for 4G services sometime in the second half of 2013.

"The regulator has shown a careless disregard for the best interests of consumers, businesses and the wider economy" — Vodafone

Ofcom said on Tuesday that it recognised its decision would give EE an early boost in the 4G market, but suggested this would only be a temporary advantage.

"Although we consider it likely that EE will enjoy a competitive advantage during the period before other operators are able to launch their own LTE [4G] services, we consider on the evidence available that any such advantage is unlikely to result in an enduring advantage which distorts competition to the detriment of consumers," Ofcom said.

"Our assessment takes account of the impending release of additional spectrum in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands which will enable other operators to launch competing LTE services during the course of 2013. We have also taken into account EE's obligation to divest itself of some its 1800MHz spectrum."

Spectrum sell-off

EE has so much 1800MHz spectrum because it represents the merged operations of T-Mobile UK and Orange UK. Getting rid of some of that spectrum was actually a condition of the merger, as set by the European Commission.

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

EE has two options for doing that: it can directly sell some of the 1800MHz spectrum to someone else — almost certainly Three — or it can put some into the 4G auction pot. If Three does buy the spectrum from EE before the auction, that would probably lead Ofcom to remove a guarantee that Three would get something in the auction.

However, Vodafone seems to suspect Three might buy the spectrum from EE, then hold up the auction with litigation to see whether it can still get some reserved 2.6GHz spectrum on top of that.

"It's in their interests to litigate to stop the auction," a Vodafone spokesman told ZDNet. "Our worry is that, since the [revised auction] rules came out [in July], Three has said nothing. They've basically been waiting."

"Ofcom should have said, 'Yes [EE] can liberalise the 2G spectrum after the auction, perhaps the day the auction closes. Then there wouldn't have been any incentive to anyone to delay the auction from happening," Vodafone's spokesman said.

Topics: 4G, Broadband, Mobility

David Meyer

About David Meyer

David Meyer is a freelance technology journalist. He fell into journalism when he realised his musical career wouldn't pay the bills. David's main focus is on communications, as well as internet technologies, regulation and mobile devices.

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  • EE to use 2G to deliver 4G

    Does this mean a reduction in service to users of 2G only phones ?
    ( Yes, there are some of us who use a 2G phone for business purposes )
    • do you mean voice or data?

      2G is the data connection. There is no business reason to use slower speed data. Now, if you mean voice then that will be unaffected. If you want to use a specific phone and that only has a 2G data transceiver then I suppose you might find less masts supporting it in future.
  • 2G Refarming...

    Orange/T-Mo/EE have admitted to me that due to refarming, a programmed rollout of updates to existing 2G masts is currently under way. However, during that time, it is unknown how long it will take each mast to 'take' to the update. Furthermore, should there be any drop out of signal strength on said mast, they will not send an engineer to fix it, until the 4G update is due to take place on this mast.

    When this type of thing is occurring in the likes of densely populated cities, this kind of cell tower issue isn't reallly seen as a massive problem; take London for example, theres approximately 300-400 EE masts in this area, mixture of 2G/3G/4G .. Then take Belfast (where I am) ... Knock out 20 masts in London, not such a big problem as an overall percentage of extra work the surrounding masts have to do. Compare that with knocking out 8-10 masts in Belfast, with only 40-50 masts supporting the greater Belfast area... all of a sudden, even the most basic 2G calls and texts access, becomes a MAJOR issue..
    Niall-Shuffle McKernan