Last week it was revealed that “peace talks” brokered by Maria Miller, the new Culture Secretary, and Ofcom have led to agreement between UK mobile operators that will allow the 4G auction process to continue unimpeded, notwithstanding Ofcom’s controversial decision in August to allow Everything Everywhere (“EE”) to use their existing 1800 MHz spectrum to launch 4G services this year (ahead of the formal auction process).
Following that August announcement, there have been rumours of Vodafone and O2 considering whether to formally challenge the Ofcom decision, which has supposedly in turn led to EE putting the brakes on announcing a formal service launch.
The other UK mobile network operator, Three, has reportedly concluded a deal to purchase additional 1800 MHz spectrum from EE (fulfilling a condition required at the time of the merger between Orange and T-Mobile to form EE), although again it was not expected that they would have been able to commence use of this spectrum until EE had exited the relevant spectrum bands themselves, sometime late in 2013.
The announcement is clearly good news for the industry in general, as despite the mobile networks stated collective goal of looking to launch 4G networks and services as soon as possible, threats of legal action by each of them have been perceived as a major factor in delaying the formal UK 4G auction process. Under latest plans published over the summer, the auction process in scheduled to kick-off in January 2013 (upto a year later than first envisaged).
However, while not under-estimating the importance of bringing the mobile networks to some sort of agreement, the real reason behind the acceleration in the timetable seems to have been the work done “behind the scenes” in ensuring that frequency in the 800 MHz band is made available for use by the mobile networks by May or June 2013, six months ahead of the previous target date of the end of 2013.
This has been enabled by the great progress that has been made by Arqiva in rolling out digital terrestrial television (“DTT”) across the UK, as part of the “great switch-over” from traditional analogue TV (which uses the 800 MHz spectrum that is being freed up for 4G use).
Getting the whole of the UK to swap over to DTT was always going to be a major logistic operation, and it is great to see that the process has gone so well that it is able to be completed ahead of schedule – a relative rarity in large-scale technology projects which are often subject to delays.
Of course, with the stakes set as high as they are here – with each of the four UK mobile operators having to secure 4G spectrum in the 4G auctions in order to ensure their survival into the future – there is still no complete guarantee that pledges made yesterday by the mobile networks are merely a “ceasefire” rather than a formal end to hostilities.
It is still however great news that we could be looking at 4G services launching across all mobile networks before next summer, provided the lawyers stay out of things…