How Ofcom and the iPhone 5 solved the UK's 4G competition crisis

EE's rivals will be able to launch their own LTE services in much of the UK during the first half of next year, rather than later. Making this possible was far more complex than simply bashing heads together.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The crisis seems to be over. The UK is going to get a competitive 4G market in the first half of 2013 — too late, in the opinion of many, but it could have been far worse.

Who do we have to thank? If anyone, it's Ofcom who should be feeling smug today. The government may be basking in the regulator's reflected glory but, with Maria Miller just one month into her new role, there is almost nothing she could have done to help this situation. Her predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, certainly found himself roundly ignored.

No, Ed Richards is most likely the one to thank. There are two reasons for supposing this: the decision to let EE roll out 4G first, and the length of time it takes to speed up spectrum clearance. These were the two keys to getting this show on the road.

The EE gambit and the iPhone 5

In some ways, Ofcom had little choice but to let EE refarm its 1800MHz 2G spectrum for 4G services. The European Commission had already mandated that such reuse be allowed, for one thing, but the move was also divorced from the upcoming spectrum auction, because it was different spectrum.

The iPhone 5, seen here in an EE speed test, changed the 4G game for operators.

At the time, the general reaction from EE's rivals indicated that they were preparing fresh legal action to hold up the auction. After all, operator lawsuits were behind the UK's more-than-four-year delay in rolling out 4G services in the first place. And now O2 and Vodafone could perhaps argue that the rules of the auction needed to be tilted in their favour, to compensate for being behind EE in deploying LTE.

However, there was a wildcard — the iPhone 5. Apple's new flagship does 4G over 1800MHz, which is great news for EE and terrible news for its rivals, because the device does not do 4G over 800MHz or 2.6GHz, the two bands in the auction.

In other words, they can't sell iPhone 5s now and promise that the LTE bit will be turned on down the line. They need to scramble in getting other 4G devices out there, and that means they cannot delay the auction any longer.

So it makes little sense to say the government forced the operators to sit down and behave. If anyone did that, it was Ofcom, but even they had a spot of luck.

Clearance is the key

Even if Ofcom had managed to hold the auction earlier this year (bidding will only take place in early 2013), it would not have done the operators much good, because the spectrum that's being auctioned off is still being used.

The nice thing about EE's swathes of 1800MHz spectrum is that it already owns and uses them — it does not need to wait for them to be cleared.

That is not the case with the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands. In the case of 800MHz, Ofcom has had to wait for the analogue switch-off to take place. As late as yesterday, the official line there was that it would be cleared across the UK by October 2013, with some parts being able to use 800MHz before then. Even that was supposed to be an improvement on the original estimate of 2014.

The 2.6GHz band, meanwhile, is used in aeronautical radar systems. Again, the estimate there until yesterday was that it would be cleared for mobile broadband use by the first quarter of 2014.

However, what Ofcom did was to go to the TV broadcasters and Arqiva, the company that manages the TV masts, and get them to agree to an earlier, phased release. This is complicated stuff and it had to have taken quite a lot of time — it certainly didn't come about as a result of yesterday's meeting, and it was unlikely to have only begun when Miller replaced Hunt.

It's not a perfect solution. It does mean that operators offering 4G over 800MHz will only be able to roll out those services in some parts of the country at first. There is also, as yet, no word on whether the 2.6GHz release has been sped up, although that is less important as the long-range 800MHz band is far more valuable to operators wanting to cut deployment costs.

But it also means that many major UK cities — London, Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield — will get non-EE 4G in May next year, rather than October. For the operators, that makes a big difference.

And for consumers, it means the world of difference. It's great that the 1800MHz spectrum refarming has allowed a relatively early 4G rollout in the UK, but it only benefited one carrier.

Healthy competition is now back on the table. And that, after all, is Ofcom's ultimate remit.

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

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