Mobile networks push for early 4G auction

Mobile operators and officials are set for landmark talks on the future of 4G, with carriers hoping to bring forward the date for the spectrum auction scheduled for next year.

Mobile networks push for early 4G auction

The move follows the decision to give EE the green light to launch services based on its existing 1,800MHz spectrum, a move which is believed to have been enabled only after a last-ditch meeting between carriers and officials.

According to reports at the time, rival operators – fearing they would be left behind by EE’s early push into faster download services – agreed not to appeal the decision for a month, but there was speculation that a deal may have been offered to ensure the process wasn’t blocked.

In a key meeting to be chaired by Culture Secretary Maria Miller today, O2 and Vodafone are expected to push for an earlier auction in return for not mounting a legal challenge to EE’s head start.

One official confirmed to PC Pro that the talks will take place this afternoon with government, Ofcom and the carriers trying to “find a solution to mitigate the problems and issues of other providers”.

We’ve seen the operators slow down the 4G auction with infighting and that suited people because they weren’t keen to put up money when they couldn’t afford it

A deal to allow an earlier auction and moves to clear spectrum currently used by other services would mean 4G rivals could launch sooner than imagined, reducing the early advantage of EE and leading to a quicker roll out of networks.

According to a letter sent by Ofcom boss Ed Richards to the Culture Secretary, seen by the BBC, “the January date of the auction itself can only be brought forward by a couple of weeks, but much more has been done about the process of clearing the spectrum for use by its new owners”.

The BBC says the letter outlines how television and air traffic control data currently occupies part of the spectrum to be sold off, but that an earlier-than-expected eviction could see rival 4G services set up in late spring rather than the end of 2013. EE intends to rollout in 16 cities before the end of the year, but has yet to announce an official launch date.

Laborious process

The auction has been a laborious process, with long-standing accusations that operators felt little need to accelerate the network upgrade while they were still making money from existing 3G technologies.

According to analysts, the move by Ofcom to allow EE to use its existing spectrum spurred the industry into action.

“We’ve seen the operators slow down the 4G auction with infighting, and that suited people because they weren’t keen to put up money when they couldn’t afford it, so they dragged it out until eventually there was an incentive for one player to break away and put money into the network,” said Matthew Howett, a telecoms regulation analyst with Ovum.

“The auction is back on track because now it essentially the only way for the others to deploy 4G, and it could be even sooner if negotiations play out.”

Partnership approval

The meeting comes days after the Office of Fair Trading gave approval for O2 and Vodafone to share infrastructure on the networks for both 2G and 3G technologies, with 4G sharing also planned, depending on licencing issues.

“The scheme will deliver real benefits for today’s mobile phone users, offering indoor 2G and 3G coverage to 98% of the UK population by 2015,” Vodafone said of the deal.

“It will also lay the foundations for two competing 4G networks, delivering nationwide services that meet the regulatory requirement of 98% population coverage, up to two years before Ofcom’s deadline of 2017.”

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