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Kate O'Flaherty

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Ofcom's handling of the spectrum auction could spell disaster for 4G rollout

By kateoflaherty, Oct 4 2012 12:52PM

Tuesday night's decision to bring the 4G spectrum auction forward has been a long time coming and comes after multiple legal threats and years of operator squabbles.


The move means the auction will be held six months earlier than planned - allowing all networks to have 4G services by next summer. Although this gives EE - which was given the green light to roll out its 4G network last month - a significant head start, it has dulled Vodafone, O2 and Three's legal battle campaigns for the time being.


Ofcom's decisions over the last few years have never really encouraged the UK operators to work together. In fact, its actions during the period have led to fights between naturally competitive networks that should have worked together for the greater good.


Legal threats have been commonplace along the way, with operators worried that the others would have a competitive advantage if allowed to acquire or keep more useful spectrum.


This should not have been their concern. Long Term Evolution (LTE) or 4G as the media likes to call it, should have been rolled out by all operators before now. Many UK operator trials have taken place already, and the US has had the technology since 2010. Meanwhile, some areas in the UK are still struggling to get a 3G signal.


The regulator's decision to allow EE to roll out 4G early might have brought the technology to consumers sooner, but it didn't give them a choice of network if they want to use the service.


Everything Everywhere had previously campaigned to roll out its LTE services early, but was forbidden to do so by the regulator as it would then be given a competitive advantage. Now, of course, things have changed.


Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards, who said the regulator's latest actions "avoids the risk of significant delay", now says the latest move "is tremendous news for consumers who might otherwise have waited a considerable period for the next generation of mobile broadband services".


He added in yesterday's statement that “Ofcom's objective has always been to release the spectrum as early as possible and we remain focused on starting the auction by the end of the year".


Yes, Ofcom's decision has finally (nearly) aligned the operator landscape. However, if its decisions during the spectrum auction continue to mirror those of the last few years, the roll out of LTE could turn into a rather embarrassing disaster.


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