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Three prepares for 4G trials in 2012

The operator will perform a technical 4G trial early in the year, followed by further real-world tests
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Mobile operator Three is preparing to test out 4G technology, which holds the promise of faster mobile broadband speeds than are possible with today's 3G networks.

Three mobile shop

Three has said it will begin performing 4G technical trials in the Thames Valley area in early 2012. Photo credit: Enjoy Truro

The operator said on Wednesday that a one-month technical trial will take place from March in the Thames Valley, the same area where O2 performed its early 4G tests. Three will be testing out 2.6GHz spectrum, which is very high-bandwidth, at around four sites close to Maidenhead and Slough.

Further tests, involving real-world customers, will follow later in the year, Three said.

"With every major upgrade like this smartphone and tablet customers will find they can enjoy their devices more in more places across the UK," Three chief David Dyson said in a statement. "Our ability to provide all-you-can-eat data packages depends on a combination of smart network management, investment in improved technologies and the spectrum that is the lifeblood of mobile."

At the moment, O2 is trialling 4G LTE (long-term evolution) technology in London, while Everything Everywhere (T-Mobile and Orange) is doing the same in Cornwall. Vodafone has already conducted three LTE trials in the UK, having started in 2009.

None of the operators can launch their UK 4G services until they have bought new spectrum at a much-delayed auction, which is now supposed to take place at the end of 2012. The auction was originally scheduled for September 2008, but real and threatened court actions from some operators — notably O2 and T-Mobile — have repeatedly put the date back.

The legal threats are part of a protracted squabble between the operators over who gets to keep or gain how much spectrum come the auction, a matter that is complicated by the fact that the UK now allows the 'refarming' of 2G voice and SMS spectrum for mobile broadband. Some operators have 2G spectrum that is suitable for refarming — similar to reallocation or repurposing — and some do not.

The intra-industry argument is testing the patience of MPs, culture secretary Jeremy Hunt and the regulator Ofcom, all of whom have called on the operators to get on with it and allow the UK not to fall even further behind other countries in deploying 4G.

A study published in October suggested that the UK is losing out on £730m of potential economic benefits each year, due to its lack of 4G services.

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