Why O2 and Vodafone won't be reusing 900MHz for 4G LTE

While operators are scrambling to find a way to cut EE's 4G head start in the UK, reusing existing 900MHz spectrum isn't the way forward.
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

A number of reports have suggested that O2 and Vodafone have approached Ofcom about refarming the 900MHz band currently used for 2G/3G services for 4G LTE instead.


While the suggestion in itself could seem logical — after all, it's what EE did with the 1800MHz band and its 4G service will be launching shortly — the realities of the situation mean that such a move would be somewhere close to pointless with 900MHz.

The lack of handsets, for example, would make refarming 900MHz an unappealing prospect. "Everything Everywhere claim we can ask to liberalise our own 900MHz spectrum for 4G, but as they know, there are no devices compatible with 4G on that band. There is such little 900MHz spectrum in Europe that it doesn't make commercial sense for the manufacturers to build the handsets to support it, and that isn't going to change. Both companies (T-Mobile and Orange) are on record saying 900 isn't suitable for 4G for this very reason," an O2 spokesman said.

READ THIS: Everything Everywhere to deliver 4G in 16 UK cities by Christmas

In EE's case, reusing 1800MHz made sense as the band is already in use in various European countries for 4G. However, almost nowhere in the continent uses 900MHz — meaning there's virtually no back-end infrastructure for delivering 4G services in the band.

"Ofcom states that no LTE equipment is currently available in the 900MHz band. It is unlikely to be made available at all across Europe because all the 900MHz operators are bidding for (or have bought) 800MHz spectrum for LTE," a Vodafone spokesman told ZDNet. "In contrast, there is network equipment freely available today for running 4G on 1800MHz."

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

So, while it could be theoretically possible — though unlikely — for the operators owning 900MHz spectrum to get end-user devices that support the frequency made in just a few weeks, the network equipment would still be lacking and any operator would still be no closer to a 4G launch.

Asked about the potential of refarming the 900MHz band for 4G, O2 was unequivocal, saying "We are not refarming 900MHz for 4G" and Vodafone equally emphatically said such a move would in no way be viable.

Such statements come as no surprise. While on the surface the idea of operators refarming their existing spectrum to reduce EE's head start in offering 4G services seems to have legs, given the lack of infrastructure and hardware for 4G LTE in 900MHz, using the band is simply not an option.

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