The UK is behind the curve with LTE deployment

The UK Government’s decision not to facilitate the deployment of LTE until 2013 at the earliest is “appalling” and has forced the UK to surrender its position as one of the leading communication markets in the world. This is the judgement of a C-level executive from one of the UK network operators, who asked not to be named.

His comments were made on Wednesday this week, shortly before the UK’s Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, said at a conference in London that Ofcom is being held up in its approach to LTE licensing by fear of litigation from the UK operator community.

A number of UK tech sites, including Tech Radar and The Enquirer, reported Vaizey’s comments at the Future Entertainment Summit in London this week.

“Ofcom needs to go through a massive process [with LTE] as it will get sued by telcos if it doesn’t get it right,” Vaizey said. ”So, if you are looking at what is delaying it, it is not Ofcom it is the telecomm companies.”

But a senior mobile operator executive told Telecoms.com this week that the UK Government has “lost the plot and let us fall behind.” He continued:

“We led the world with mobile, and we led with the deployment of PCN (GSM1800MHz) networks. We were also at the forefront with 3G, and the Government did very well out of that. It’s appalling that, with LTE, they have let us get behind in the world of global communications.”

He went onto argue that UK operators’ deployment strategies for LTE cannot be addressed until the nature of the licences become clear. With the UK now split into two network camps—Vodafone and O2 want to deploy LTE in collaboration while 3UK and Everything Everywhere are expected to rollout the technology through their MBNL network joint venture—collaboration will be an essential part of the deployment process. “But collaboration is likely to be restricted by certain clauses in the spectrum licences,” he said. “Until it becomes clear how much this is likely to happen, it’s very difficult for us to plan.”

All UK networks face a fate similar to that endured by O2 in 2009 when data traffic led by the popularity of the iPhone caused huge strain, forcing CEO Ronan Dunne to apologise for poor network performance, the executive told Telecoms.com.

“We will run out of spectrum and sites and we won’t be able to carry the traffic growth,” he said.

Everything Everywhere, which operates the Orange and T-Mobile brands in the UK, is seeking permission to re-farm some of its 1800MHz spectrum in a bid to launch LTE ahead of the allocation of 800MHz and 2.6GHz through auction—which is currently expected to take place next year.

But Vodafone and O2 have voiced concerns over the proposal, arguing that it would give Everything Everywhere an unfair advantage. Ofcom is currently considering its response to the EE request. Vodafone and O2, meanwhile, were allowed to re-farm 900MHz spectrum for 3G services in 2011.

An Ofcom spokesman told Telecoms.com that it has “done everything possible to ensure the early release of [LTE] spectrum” but added that it has faced “delays caused by legal challenges and the threats of legal challenges.”

The auction of LTE spectrum is still scheduled for the end of 2012, although much of the spectrum allocated will not be clear until 2013 —and in some cases late in 2013.

Ofcom’s statement on LTE licensing is expected in late summer and it is highly unlikely that the UK regulator will deliver its pronouncement on the Everything Everywhere proposal until after that statement as been made.

Not everyone believes that coming late to the LTE party will harm the UK market, however. Ed Candy, group technology strategist for Hutchison’s 3 group, recently told Telecoms.com that the device ecosystem is still too immature to enable operators to really exploit LTE network investments.

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