The UK's operators will be able to deploy LTE using 800MHz spectrum earlier than planned

The 800MHz spectrum that will be allocated to the UK’s operators to roll out LTE services will be made usable earlier than planned, following peace talks between the UK government, the nation’s operators and the telecommunications regulator Ofcom.

The auction itself still remains on course to be held in early 2013, as announced by Ofcom in July last year. Now though, Ofcom has held discussions with TV broadcasters, Digital UK and the transmission company Arqiva to secure the earlier release of the frequency that was previously used for digital-terrestrial broadcasting.

This means that the 800MHz spectrum band will now be cleared and ready for 4G mobile services across much of the UK five months earlier than previously planned, from spring 2013.

“This has only become possible in the past few months as a result of the significant progress that has been made to date with the digital switchover and the clearance programme itself, which has been running ahead of schedule,” the regulator claimed in a statement.

The lower frequency of the 800MHz band means that it is able to cover greater distances than the 2.6GHz band, which will also be auctioned for LTE services, making it particularly useful for rural areas, though it can carry less data. The availability of the 2.6GHz spectrum, which is arguably more suitable for urban areas, is not affected by this announcement.

The UK’s operators had previously voiced their concerns that EE – the new operator brand announced by Everything Everywhere – parent company for the T-Mobile and Orange brands in the UK – would have been given a significant head-start on rolling out LTE services. EE had already secured permission to refarm its own 1800MHz spectrum for LTE. The operator said that it will launch its service on 30th October 2012.

Vodafone and O2 are likely to use the 800MHz spectrum in a blended network with the 2.6GHz spectrum, according to Mark Newman, chief research officer at Informa Telecoms and Media, whereas EE and 3UK have access to the 1800MHz spectrum, which they will be using for their own LTE services.

“It’s all very well saying that O2 and Vodafone can come to market more quickly now, but is rolling out LTE on 2.6GHz as valuable as the 1800MHz spectrum that EE and 3UK has?”

“Looking at the global perspective, 1800MHz is the preferred LTE spectrum as it manages to strike that balance between dense urban coverage and more extensive national coverage.”

He also questioned how long it would take O2 and Vodafone to launch their LTE services, using the 2.6GHz band.

Whether this move is enough to appease operators and prevent further legal action is currently unclear. Telecoms.com understands from a source close to the matter that the the Secretary of State has instructed UK operators to allow the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to handle all communications relating to the announcement.

Bengt Nordström, co-founder and CEO of consultancy firm Northstream, believes that Ofcom has “all the reasons in the world” to repair the damage it had created by providing a single operator with permission to launch the next generation service ahead of its competitors.

“Where the UK mobile market is today is probably the result of a weak regulator,” he said. “If you have a competent regulator who, in their submissions, is asking for advice from the market, then if it acts in a stringent way, operators understand,

“They might have their own views about the moves taken by the regulator, but by and large they would agree with them and know that there is no point in complaining or delaying the process.”

Nordström added that most other European countries have managed these spectrum issues around LTE in one way or another, and there is already spectrum available in France, Italy, Spain, Sweden.

“LTE is already everywhere apart from the UK, so I would point at the regulator.”

Matthew Howett, leader of Ovum’s telecoms regulatory practice, believes that all parties should share the blame for the UK’s LTE auction becoming such a long and drawn out process.

“Initially it was Ofcom for failing to appreciate how operators might actually intend to use the spectrum and its inability to take a joined-up approach, only to be followed by the government for taking its eye off the ball during the change of parliament once a way forward had been laid out. Finally, the operators themselves can’t escape blame entirely either. For too long it suited them all too well to keep sending the matter back to Ofcom at a time when money was tight and the economic outlook uncertain”

He added that the decision by Ofcom to allow EE to launch 4G ahead of everyone else meant that for others to follow they needed the joint award of 800MHz and 2.6GHz to happen as soon as possible.

“Clearing the spectrum early is not without its challenges and all sides should be praised for the efforts made. From the outset it has always been an ambitious timetable, however now with political will and the commercial motivation from the industry, it finally looks set to happen,” added Howett.


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