Last March we reported on Ofcom’s announcement of a consultation process getting under way regarding the best way to dole out the 4G spectrum. It was a positive move, but news today that the auction to sell off the spectrum has been delayed, is less encouraging.
The UK is already lagging behind a lot of other European countries (Sweden and Germany) as well as the US and Japan in providing a next generation mobile network and Ofcom has now confirmed that the largest ever spectrum auction has been delayed.
While a trial is due to begin in South Newquay this month of an LTE network, a national 4G network is still years away.
Ofcom was expected to publish the terms of the auction this month but that document has now been delayed until November. "We are still aiming for the first half of next year. However, we have always maintained it is an ambitious timescale," an Ofcom spokesman said. The auction had been due to take place in the first quarter of 2012.
This delay will be of most concern to Three as the other major mobile operators (O2, Vodafone and Everything Everywhere) have spare spectrum which they can reallocate from making phone calls to data activities such as internet access - and therefore meet the growing needs as more and more people use their mobile phone and tablets to access the internet.
Three has no spare spectrum to allocate and will run out of capacity a lot quicker than its rivals – especially as Three is the last operator to offer truly unlimited data packages.
With the auction delayed, successful bidders will only be able to roll out 4G services toward the end of 2013 or the beginning of 2014. The government will want to move this process forward as fast as possible, since it promised blanket broadband coverage across the UK by the time of the next election.
With fibre and copper connections unlikely to be able to reach many rural areas by that stage, next generation mobile broadband could be the answer.
The Ofcom spokesman added: "This is a complex area, involving a large number of technical and competition issues that we need to consider and resolve before finalising proposals. For example, a very high proportion of households in the UK rely on Digital Terrestrial TV – Freeview – which needs to be relocated before 4G can be rolled out.”
"We note that because these technical issues need to be satisfactorily resolved before new networks can be built, it will not be possible for mobile operators to start rolling out 4G networks until 2013 at the earliest regardless of when the auction itself actually takes place."