The launch of 4G superfast mobile broadband networks across the UK has been brought forward by several months, so that all major operators could have services in place by summer 2013 instead of next autumn.
It follows a “crunch” meeting this week between operators and the regulator Ofcom. Vodafone and O2 in particular had voiced concerns that the EE joint venture run by Orange and T-Mobile had an unfair advantage by being allowed to press ahead with a limited 4G launch in the next few weeks, while all of its rivals would have to wait almost a year.
The timescale has now been brought forward after Ofcom agreed to move the auction process forward to January 2012 instead of May on the condition that mobile operators did not take legal action against EE to prevent its early 4G launch.
The auction, where mobile companies will be able to bid for a licence to run 4G services, has had to wait until analogue TV channels are switched off and the necessary frequencies cleared for use by mobile broadband. The digital switchover has just completed in mainland Britain, with Northern Ireland following later in October.
However, some areas, including homes around Oxford, London, Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, will have to retune all Freeview equipment yet again in the coming months. A number of digital TV channels are currently being used in parts of the spectrum that are being cleared for 4G. The affected TV channels will move to safer frequencies.
Ofcom says that “following intensive technical planning work, the clearance date for TV transmitters in Oxford and Waltham – which would otherwise prevent deployment of 4G mobile services to around 9 million people – will be brought forward by five months to May 2013.”
TV transmissions around Glasgow and Edinburgh are also to be changed to avoid impacting around 1 million people. This work will be brought forward by more than three months to April 2013.
This means that 4G services will then operate on the 800MHz spectrum, as well as 2.6GHz and the existing but limited 1800MHz capacity being used by EE (and soon Virgin Mobile too). Next year some or all of the 1800MHz band may be sold to Three, as EE moves to spare space in the 800MHz band. However, some devices, including Apple’s iPhone 5 are not currently able to work on 4G at this frequency, unless a new version of the hardware is released.
All four of the UK’s major mobile companies should be able to offer 4G by around July 2013 across the UK, including rural areas once their base stations are ready. Only the Highlands and Islands of Scotland will have to wait until 2014 when additional spectrum that is more suited to carrying mobile signals over much longer distances will be available.
Mobile operators and the government will be funding a multi-million-pound project to help prevent 4G signals interfering with Freeview broadcasts in certain areas where TV and mobile services will be transmitted on adjoining frequencies.
Ofcom’s 4G plans include a requirement that “mobile broadband services will be available indoors to at least 98 percent of people in villages, towns and cities across the UK. Outdoor coverage should exceed 99 percent of the population.”