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Hunt urges operators not to stall 4G auction

Operators should set differences aside and work together to get 4G started, or risk the UK being left even further behind in super-fast mobile broadband, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has warned
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has called on the UK's mobile operators to stop delaying the 4G spectrum auction.

Jeremy Hunt

Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has urged UK mobile network operators not to stall the much-delayed 4G spectrum auction. Photo credit: Conservative Party

The auction is already almost four years late, having originally been scheduled for September 2008. Much of the delay has been caused by operators going to court to stall the sell-off. In a speech to the Royal Television Society on Wednesday, Hunt said "we must press on as quickly as possible with the 4G auction".

"Sweden completed their auction in 2009, Germany last year, Italy is doing theirs this week and France will finish theirs this year," Hunt said. "Mobile phone operators must put aside competitive differences and work together in their common — and our national — interest to make this happen."

Hunt added that "super-fast mobile" is crucial to Britain's future. It is needed if the UK is to be in the "fast lane" when it comes to the internet of things, he said, in a reference to the billions of devices that are becoming network enabled.

The 4G auction will sell off 72MHz of spectrum in the 800MHz band and 190MHz in the 2.6GHz band. The most likely technology to use that spectrum is the 4G technology LTE, which is is around 10 times faster than today's HSDPA technology.

Auction disputes

While there is no litigation under way at the moment, in the last few years, there have been some court cases over the auction. The disputes have centred on whether operators holding 2G voice and SMS spectrum will be able to 'refarm' it for 3G mobile broadband. Operators have argued that until they know the answer to this, they cannot decide on the amount of their bids for new mobile broadband spectrum.

Telecoms regulator Ofcom gave spectrum refarming the green light in January, and in March it set out the rules for the upcoming auction, with the aim of holding it by mid-2012.

Reports emerged at the start of September that O2 and other companies have made veiled threats of fresh litigation. Although all operators are running out of mobile broadband capacity, further delays would particularly harm Three as it is the only network operator in the UK without 2G spectrum to reuse.

Ofcom said it hopes the spectrum will be allocated as soon as possible, so that operators will be able to introduce 4G-based mobile broadband services when the frequencies are turned over to new use in 2013.

"Given the ample opportunity that we will have given the MNOs [mobile network operators] and others to explain their views and concerns to us, we would hope that all stakeholders will accept the outcome of the discussions around this process without further challenge, and allow the UK's citizens and consumers to enjoy the benefits of 4G services as soon as possible," a spokesperson for the regulator told ZDNet UK.

The amount of 4G spectrum being released in the auction is 80 percent greater than the 3G spectrum that the government sold off for a staggering £22.5bn in 2000. The mobile industry has regretted for many years the way bidding spiralled out of control for 3G, and examples such as the German 4G auction in May 2010, which netted around £3.7bn, suggest bids will be much lower this time round.

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