Out-Law News 3 min. read

Ofcom to hold 4G spectrum auction before end of year after stakeholder talks dispel legal action threat

Mobile operators will be able to deliver new superfast broadband services to consumers by early spring next year after Ofcom announced that it would be able to auction off spectrum to enable the services to be delivered before the end of this year.

The move will mean that consumers will have "more next generation mobile services" available to them from next spring, the Government said.

Ofcom said that it will auction off spectrum to be used for new '4G' services before the end of year after industry talks led to the end of the threat of legal action against it, the Government has said. The regulator said that it has managed to secure the freeing up of spectrum to enable new 4G services to be delivered earlier than anticipated after working with stakeholders in the TV broadcasting industry.

"Following discussions with TV broadcasters, Digital UK and the transmission company Arqiva, Ofcom has secured the earlier release of frequencies that were previously used for digital-terrestrial broadcasting," Ofcom said in a statement. "This spectrum 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."

"This means that more UK consumers will be able to benefit from a competitive market for super-fast mobile broadband sooner than previously possible," the regulator said.

Ed Richards, Ofcom chief executive added: "The actions we have taken with industry and Government avoids the risk of significant delay and is tremendous news for consumers who might otherwise have waited a considerable period for the next generation of mobile broadband services."

The term '4G' is generally used to refer to mobile broadband services delivered using the next generation of mobile broadband technologies; including Long Term Evolution (LTE) and WiMAX. LTE technical standards make more efficient use of radio spectrum, which makes them ideally suited for the high bandwidth data services including video streaming, social networking and GPS and mapping services used by smartphones and laptops.

Mobile phone companies were first awarded varying amounts of spectrum at 900MHz and 1,800MHz in the 1990s on the condition that this could only be used for 2G services, mainly voice calls and text messages. In 2011, Ofcom ruled that this could also be used for 3G services as part of its plans to "liberalise" spectrum use for the benefit of consumers.

Earlier this year Ofcom granted Everything Everywhere (EE) the right to use its existing network to deliver next generation '4G' services to its customers. This led to complaints from rival networks that this would provide EE with a competitive advantage in the market since Ofcom's plans to auction off additional spectrum was previously not due until next year.

The spectrum, in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands, is a combination of high and low frequencies which Ofcom has claimed will enable operators to offer widespread mobile coverage at faster speeds. The auction process was announced in a bid to satisfy infrastructure requirements needed to support the growth in mobile internet access and a drive towards faster networks.

However, in August O2 wrote to Ofcom to announce its intention to appeal Ofcom's decision to allow EE to launch its 4G services prior to the spectrum auction to the Competition Appeals Tribunal.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has now said, though, that Tuesday's meeting had "dispelled any fears of litigation" and that "thanks to a number of initiatives, mobile operators will be able to roll-out 4G services to the vast majority of the UK in the first half of next year – six months earlier than previously estimated." It said that EE is due to launch its 4G service "ahead of Christmas this year".

"The open and collaborative approach taken between the Government and the mobile companies will have hugely beneficial results for UK business and investment," Culture Secretary Maria Miller said. "We anticipate that 4G services will boost the UK’s economy by around £2-3 billion. This is an example of the Government listening and responding to huge demand from both the public and business. High-speed mobile connections, will mean that online services can be accessed more easily and quickly."

"By speeding up the delivery of 4G in the UK, the Government is creating enormous opportunities. It is up to the operators to now deliver the services that businesses and consumers expect and we are confident they will succeed. I am grateful for the efforts of all concerned in bringing forward the 4G timetable," she said.

DCMS said last month that the Government planned to remove existing "red tape" that places restrictions on the installation of overhead broadband lines, as well as other "unnecessary bureaucracy in the planning system", as part of a drive to improve the UK's broadband infrastructure and meet its pledge of ensuring the UK has the fastest broadband services in Europe by 2015.

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